5 Italian players who need stellar seasons to ensure World Cup spots

The 2018 World Cup in Russia kicks off in a little more than eight months, and a handful of Italy internationals with caps under their belts face missing out on the quadrennial contest because of their domestic standing.

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Here's a look at five Azzurri charges who need cracking campaigns to cement inclusion in Gian Piero Ventura's 23-man squad for the trip to Russia.

Mario Balotelli

Nice reclamation project Mario Balotelli could score a half-century league goals this season while finding the cure for scurvy and Gian Piero Ventura still wouldn't give the 33-time capped international a sniff.

"As far as Balotelli is concerned, we've already talked about it in the past: when we were discussing renewing (the national team), we did touch on it, and the priority is picking players who are excelling," Ventura said earlier in the week. "The way of judging this is not whether Balotelli is scoring goals, the problems are elsewhere - the rest of Balotelli."

There's the kicker, but if Ventura is serious about calling up players who are "excelling," only Ciro Immobile is in better form that Balotelli, and with Andrea Belotti's injury, the Azzurri aren't exactly blessed with depth up top. Somewhere down the road, Balotelli will admit to egging Ventura's home and all of this will make sense.

Stephan El Shaarawy

Roma attacker Stephan El Shaarawy is nothing if not wildly inconsistent, and despite getting the nod from Ventura for the tilts with Albania and Macedonia, the 24-year-old is anything but a shoe-in for the trip to Russia.

El Shaarawy's obstacles with club and country are one in the same: playing time. With Roma, the considerably coiffed left-sided player is likely to regain his spot on the bench when Patrik Schick returns from injury, while the perpetually underrated Frenchman Gregoire Defrel is also a threat to El Shaarawy's Giallorossi standing. With Italy, the emergence of Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne's recent installation as a cog in the attack could also keep the dead-ball savant out of the side come 2018.

Riccardo Montolivo

A middling player in his prime, AC Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo is the biggest long shot among this list of slim chances, though if there's one thing Ventura has become famous for, it's making illogical choices.

Montolivo, 32, has had a tough go since returning from a protracted spell on the sidelines with a broken leg prior to the 2014 World Cup that was followed by a cruciate ligament rupture courtesy of a crafty bit of work from Sergio Ramos. With Vincenzo Montella favouring a midfield three of Franck Kessie, Lucas Biglia, and Hakan Calhanoglu, it's likely Montolivo won't play enough this season to merit a spot in Russia.

Andrea Barzagli

For Juventus centre-back Andrea Barzagli, his decline on the pitch has mirrored the seasoned veteran's introduction to salt and pepper strands. Once a purveyor of jet-black hair, Barzagli, 36, has started to go gray, and while most would be jealous of his dense fibers, it's hard not to notice that his hair has changed at a similar clip as his virtues on the pitch.

Arguably the oldest still-influential outfield player in Europe, Barzagli is a no-nonsense defender who never seems out of position, but as much as he's lost a step in the last season and change, the biggest threat to his place in Russia is the emergence of the next generation of Italian defenders. Milan centre-back Alessio Romagnoli could get a look over Barzagli, as could Mattia Caldara. A ball-stopping central defender, Caldara, 23, may very well take Barzagli's gig with Juve as well when he returns from a loan spell at Atalanta come May.

Simone Zaza

Forever associated with his celestial penalty attempt against Germany in the Euro 2016 quarter-final, Valencia striker Simone Zaza has fallen out of favour with the national team as Ventura turns a blind eye to in-form strikers.

Zaza, who has six goals in six starts for Los Che, has not been called up since the Euros, and considering the dearth of viable No. 9 options at Ventura's disposal, he could do worse than the Imhotep doppelganger who has free reign over one of two forward positions in Marcelino Garcia Toral's preferred 4-4-2 formation. Asked about giving Zaza a crack in light of Belotti's injury, Ventura said, "There was not enough time to prepare these two games in just three days, but that's not a definitive no to Zaza."

5 Italian players who need stellar seasons to ensure World Cup spots
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