Roberto Mancini defends under-fire Italy striker Mario Balotelli

The Azzurri rescued a point in their Group 3 opener against Poland on Friday in Bologna and next play the European champions -- without superstar Cristiano Ronaldo -- at Lisbon's Estadio da Luz.

Published: 10th September 2018 02:36 PM  |   Last Updated: 10th September 2018 02:36 PM   |  A+A-

Italy's Mario Balotelli leaves the field as he is substituted during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between Italy and Poland at Dall'Ara stadium in Bologna, Italy, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. | AP

By AFP

LISBON: Roberto Mancini shrugged off criticism of under-fire striker Mario Balotelli and his Italy team ahead of Monday's Nations League game against Portugal in Lisbon.

The Azzurri rescued a point in their Group 3 opener against Poland on Friday in Bologna and next play the European champions -- without superstar Cristiano Ronaldo -- at Lisbon's Estadio da Luz.

Nice striker Balotelli failed to fire in Friday's game, which was his first competitive outing for Italy since the 2014 World Cup, and looks set to miss Monday's game with a muscular problem.

"Balotelli may have not played well, but not being able to give 100 percent in a game happens to everyone," said Mancini.

"This was the first competitive match of the season, there will be many more.

"We'll find the right formula for this Italy side, we just need a little patience, but the Italy we want to see doesn't exist yet. We hope to form it soon."

Mancini confirmed that Fiorentina forward Federico Chiesa would start after the 20-year-old proved pivotal when he came on last Friday, along with goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.

"Everyone can view things the way they want, but I am not particularly worried by criticism," continued Mancini, who is looking for his first competitive win since taking over last May after Italy's failure to qualify for the World Cup.

"I am aware that there are errors in a game, but also what we can do about them and how to work on the good elements too.

"There's no need to worry."

Balotelli's place could be taken by either Andrea Belotti or Ciro Immobile, with the latter attending Sunday's press conference in Lisbon with Mancini.

"I don't know who will play tomorrow, I'll think it over tonight," said Mancini. 

"We will change a few players, as there have only been a few days and a journey between matches, so we're not in peak condition.

"I am not as negative as many of you who wrote about the Poland game. 

"I am fairly positive and honest too, as if we had been completely awful then I would have said so. 

"It's difficult to do like many years ago and allow practically no chances to the opposition, but we do need to score more than one goal per game."

Portugal, who competed in the World Cup unlike Italy, are a threat even without the presence of Ronaldo, said Mancini.

"They might not have Ronaldo, but there's Bruma, who I worked with at Galatasaray and is very dangerous on the counter. 

"There are technically gifted players."

Portugal drew 1-1 against Croatia in a friendly during the week.

And coach Fernando Santos said they wanted to make a positive start on the road to defending their European title.

"Italy remains one of the top national teams even if they did not take part in the last World Cup.

"But I can say that it will be different from the friendly match last Thursday, because tomorrow is an official match with three points at stake."

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