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Italy coach Spalletti demanding top display against Malta

Italy coach Luciano Spalletti (centre) and goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma speak to a press conference. Photo: Gabriel Cassar

Italy coach Luciano Spalletti is expecting a top performance from his players as the Azzurri look to boost their hopes of qualification with a sound victory over Malta at the San Nicola Stadium in Bari on Saturday.

The Azzurri have little margin for error against Malta as they look to hold the edge in the race for a top-two finish in the group which currently sees them sharing the runners-up spot with North Macedonia and Ukraine.

The former Napoli coach said that he has been encouraged by the level of training put in by his players this week and hopes they can carry that momentum in tonight’s match in Bari.

“I’m very pleased with the effort put in by my players during training this week,” Spalletti said.

“I saw a team who put on a top performance during training. The way the ball moved during those sessions was of a very high level. As every day passed the level of enthusiasm among the players always improved and it’s important that we recognise our ability and make sure we produce a top performance against Malta on Saturday.”

The build-up for this match was far from ideal for the reigning European champions who were hit by the betting scandal which saw midfield duo Sandro Tonali and Nicolo Zaniolo forced to leave the squad as they face an investigation from the Italian police.

“It was a tough night for us, particularly when you are under intense pressure to bring home some key results and you have great expectations from all quarters,” Spalletti said.

“There was great sadness among the players for what happened and all of the squad was close to both Zaniolo and Tonali. We will continue to remain firmly behind them because it’s only fair that we give them our support and help them to defend themselves.

“But at the same time, it is important that the Italian jurisdiction conducts its investigation and if they are guilty of making a mistake it’s only fair that they pay for their errors.

“FIGC president Gabriele Gravina and Sports Minister Andrea Abodi have both spoken on the dangers of falling into these unfortunate situations. We need to help the youngsters who fall into this trap and create the necessary awareness of the repercussions of such mistakes.”

Asked what he thought was the biggest danger the match against Malta could provide to his team, Spalletti said: “It’s the same kind of danger that any football match can provide to us. But we have the technical qualities, the strength but most of all the passion of our fans for this team and we must produce a top performance, not only against Malta but also against England on Tuesday.”

Meanwhile, Spalletti has roped in Roma striker Stephan El Shaarawy for the match against Malta.

El Shaarawy joined his teammates yesterday morning, stepping in as Juventus forward Federico Chiesa also left Tuscany with a thigh injury.

The former Milan and Shanghai Shenhua player has scored six goals in 29 appearances for Italy but has not played since March 2021.

The 30-year-old has been relegated to a substitute’s role at Roma since Belgian international Romelu Lukaku’s arrival on loan from Chelsea and has failed to score in eight matches in all competitions.

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