For a nation so stereotypically associated with great defenders, the Italian national team has also been blessed with some of European football’s deadliest strikers. From the clinical World Cup winning display of Paolo Rossi in 1982 to the iconic heroics of Totò Schillaci and Roberto Baggio in subsequent editions, the men finding the back of the net for the Azzurri have often stolen the headlines from those charged with denying opponents at the other end of the pitch.
That continues today, with Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi dominating the headlines far more regularly than the likes of Leonardo Bonucci or Giorgio Chiellini, yet neither of the former pair currently figures for Italy. The ex-Liverpool and Manchester City man continues to be overlooked, and Antonio Conte made it clear that even if the 25-year-old hadn’t picked up an injury at the weekend he still would not have been called up for his most recent squad.
“There’s still a path to follow to get to the national team,” the coach said when asked about the Balotelli at a press conference on Monday. “Two games are not enough to re-open the doors. I need certainty, and that goes for him or anyone else. We need consistency and good performances. Mario has to be determined and look for consistency.”
Rossi has also just returned from the knee injury that saw him miss almost an entire season, forcing Conte to instead rely upon a group of less talented but hard working forwards. Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza have become regulars under the former Juventus boss, but it is becoming increasingly evident that Graziano Pellè is now Italy’s key man in attack.
Seizing the opportunity presented by those aforementioned absences, the 30-year-old has spent the majority of his career away from his homeland, struggling on the few occasions he was given a chance to play in Serie A. Indeed, his first three seasons saw him fail to score for boyhood club Lecce or on loan at Cesena, before an impressive six month spell caught the attention of AZ Alkmaar where he would then spend four years.
Returning to Italy with Parma and Sampdoria, he would struggle again before opting to head back to the Netherlands with Feyenoord signing him ahead of the 2012/13 campaign. In two seasons with the Eredivisie side, Pellè scored 50 goals in just 57 league appearances which paved the way for his subsequent £8 million move to Southampton.
Continuing his relationship with Ronald Koeman has proven fruitful for both men, the player netting sixteen goals in all competitions last term, helping the club to finish seventh in the Premier League and secure European football for the first time in over a decade. The St Mary’s outfit have seen their Italian striker begin the current campaign in even more impressive form, scoring seven times in just eleven appearances thus far.
Standing 1.94m (6ft 4 in) tall, Pellè’s playing style is much more in-keeping with that of an old fashioned English centre forward than the likes of Rossi, Baggio or Schillaci, combining sheer physical strength with a strong work ethic and a relentless aggression in pursuit of the ball. He is strong in the air, supported by statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com which show only four Premier League players can better his average of 4.6 headers per game.
Yet, just as he proved last weekend against Chelsea, Pellè also has a keen eye for goal, with only four of his Southampton strikes coming from headers. Able to net with either foot, he has transferred that prowess onto the international stage, scoring three times in his six appearances for the Azzurri as each goal proved crucial to helping the side earn a positive result.
Match-winning strikes in both qualifying encounters with Malta and an equaliser in March’s friendly with England have seen Pellè earn Conte’s trust, the boss quick to praise his leading man at this week’s press conference. “He sacrifices so much, he plays for the team and that’s key,” the coach told reporters. “I’m happy to have a player with his characteristics; he’s good at playing as a lone-striker or in a pair.”
Without Balotelli or Rossi – and with in-form Napoli star Lorenzo Insigne also dropping out injured – he will be called upon to deliver this week as the team look to seal qualification for Euro 2016. In a finely balanced Group H, good performances against Azerbaijan and Norway could secure Italy’s place at the tournament, with Graziano Pellè likely to once again deliver in place of those more high-profile names.