- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

MILAN (AP) - Italy coach Antonio Conte believes the upcoming qualifier against Croatia will be a true test of how far the national side has progressed since he took over in the summer.

Italy hosts Croatia at San Siro in 11 days in a qualifying match for the 2016 European Championship, with both teams level at the top of Group H after winning their opening two matches.

“It will be good to face a strong team. We have started on a path and this game will give us some answers,” Conte said on Wednesday. “It’s a very positive period for Croatia, with players who are regular starters in top European clubs. There are many strong players and it’s a team with a capital T.

“They have more certainties than us, while we are rebuilding. It will be the chance to see at what point we are in at our growth progress, and what we still have to do.”

Italy has won its four matches under Conte, conceding just one goal, as the Azzurri slowly overcome the bitter disappointment of crashing out at the group stage at the World Cup.

Previous coach Cesare Prandelli resigned immediately after Italy’s last match at the tournament.

“We’re coming off the back of a huge disappointment, we know there are serious problems in Italian football,” Conte said. “We are behind other nations, like Germany, Spain - despite its World Cup failure. Like the Netherlands and Belgium, France. But we know we have time to reduce this gap, with desire, trying to work really hard to grow in every point of view, tactically and mentally.

“Now it’s important to get to the Euros, and in that month try to create something beautiful and extraordinary which will mean we can compete against anyone.”

Conte is looking to instil in the Azzurri players the same mentality and hunger his Juventus side embodied while winning the last three Serie A titles.

“It’s more difficult in a national team because you don’t have the chance to work every day with the players like you do at a club,” Conte said.

“We have to make the most of the days we have together to understand that to win you need to be methodical and discipline, and you also need that passion and fire which some have and others have less of. It’s up to me to bring that out.”

Conte also appealed for the fans to come out in numbers to support the team.

“I want San Siro to be sold out for the national team, because we want to deliver excitement and play with pride,” he said. “I hope they will be with us in what is a really important task for us.”

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