Italy manager Antonio Conte has defended his decision to leave Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli out of his squad for the forthcoming European Championship qualifiers.

The former Manchester City star has not featured in the Azzurri squad since their disappointing World Cup campaign and has again been omitted from the 26-man squad that will take on Azerbaijan and Malta.

Conte, who succeeded Cesare Prandelli after leaving Juventus in the summer, insists Balotelli remains in his thinking but feels the 24-year-old needs to be given time to focus on his club career for the time being.

"Mario has started a new path. It is not an easy on and I believe he must be given the necessary time to adapt at Liverpool," Conte told a press conference on Monday 6 October.

"We are following him just as we monitor all Italians that play abroad. I make selections not exclusions, which is something completely different."

Balotelli's omission has freed up a place in the squad for Southampton striker Graziano Pelle. The 29-year-old failed to even creep on to the radar of former Italy coaches while playing his trade in his homeland and during his two years at Feyenoord.

But his sensational start to life in the Premier League marked by four goals in seven appearances has seen him force his way into contention.

"Graziano represents what I have always said," Conte said. "Meritocracy leads to a place in the national team for a player that in two years has scored 50 goals.

"Today he is becoming a star in the Premier League after an adventure in Holland. I am curious to see him from a close range in order to understand if he can help us.

"He deserves this call up from all points of view."

Italy got their qualifying campaign off to a winning start in September, securing a 2-0 win over Norway last month.