Ventura set for Italy debut with France in World Cup qualifying

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Milan (AFP) - Chelsea jokes aside, Giampiero Ventura is hoping to pick up where Antonio Conte left off when he leads a new-look Italy for the first time in a friendly against beaten Euro 2016 finalists France on Thursday.

"I want to take Antonio's project forward," Ventura told media Monday, a week before making his competitive debut as coach of Italy in a 2018 World Cup qualifier against Israel in Haifa.

"If I follow his path, then I know where to go in two years -- Chelsea!"

At 68 years old and now realising a long-held dream of coaching the four-time World Cup winners, Ventura is highly unlikely to follow 46-year-old Conte's path to Stamford Bridge.

He has more pressing concerns, namely maintaining the hopes of Italy fans and federation chiefs following a promising Euro 2016 campaign that was only ended by a dramatic quarter-final penalty shoot-out to Germany.

For the first time since their last World Cup triumph in 2006, Italy -- who exited the past two World Cups at the first round -- were feted on their return home.

For many, it proved the three consecutive titles Conte won with Italy's strongest club, Juventus, in 2012-2014 -- when Ventura was working across the city as coach of unfashionable Torino -- were no fluke.

Indeed, Conte raised Italy's profile significantly during an impressive Euro campaign and Ventura knows his will be a hard act to follow.

"It's extremely challenging to take up his mantle," added Ventura, who is expected, initially at least, to keep faith with his predecessor's preferred 3-5-2 formation.

Thursday's test is expected to see a possibly emotional Ventura -- he began his coaching career in Bari -- stick with the gameplan Conte used to such success in France, and possibly hand debuts at some point in the game to one of four squad new boys including Torino forward Andrea Belotti, who hit a hat-trick at the weekend.

"It will be a difficult match, France reached the Euro 2016 final and lost a very combative match," said Belotti, whose idols are AC Milan great Andriy Shevchenko and Manchester City striker forward Sergio Aguero.

"They are all top level players and won't give us much space, but with the coach we're working on how to make life difficult for me."

With Inter Milan striker Eder expected to partner Graziano Pelle up front, Belotti may not even make his debut but hinted that his understanding with Ventura could pay dividends.

"He (Ventura) knows what I bring as a player. He's always supported me and I understand him when he makes demands," added Belotti.

"Obviously I'm not going to walk into a starting place because the striker's here are all top drawer. I have a lot of competition but it's the coach who decides."

Influential Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Marco Verratti is expected to make his first Italy appearance since qualifying for Euro 2016, which me missed due to injury.

Although some have questioned Ventura's credentials, Verratti said: "Faith is important to develop youngsters and in Italy we have a lot of talented ones.

"Ventura will make his decisions but then it's up to us to earn and repay his trust."

Following the France friendly, Italy begin 2018 World Cup qualifying Monday in Haifa against Israel, one of five Group G rivals along with Spain, Albania Macedonia and Lichtenstein.

On paper, Italy and Spain should dominate the group. But with the winners qualifying automatically and the eight best runners-up facing a two-legged playoff, there will be little room for error.

Ventura wants to see his team "have fun": "I want to see my team have fun on the pitch. When that happens, results come too."

But even he admits anything less than a win next Monday would cause concern.

"For a national team, what matters most is the result. If the result comes after a good performance then even better."

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