- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

BARI, Italy (AP) - Antonio Conte and Guus Hiddink will each be making coaching debuts when Italy hosts the Netherlands in a friendly Thursday with both sides missing several key players.

Conte replaced Cesare Prandelli after the Azzurri’s first-round elimination from the World Cup while the well-traveled Hiddink is beginning his second stint in charge of the Dutch, building on the work of Louis van Gaal, who steered the Netherlands to third place in Brazil.

Conte caused a stir when he left out star striker Mario Balotelli from his squad, while the Dutch have a lengthy injury list, with Arjen Robben, Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Rafael van der Vaart, Jordy Clasie and Ron Vlaar out.

Conte led Juventus to the last three Serie A titles and is known as a hard-line motivator. Asked for three adjectives to describe his squad, he selected “humble, proud and nasty.”

“We need to bring Italy back to where it belongs, because after Brazil we’re the most important national team in the world,” Conte said.

Without Balotelli and the injured Pablo Osvaldo in attack, Conte is expected to rely on Ciro Immobile - last season’s Serie A scoring leader with 22 goals for Torino who is now with Borussia Dortmund - and perhaps AC Milan’s Stephan El Shaarawy or national team newcomer Simone Zaza of Sassuolo.

Conte will also almost certainly use a three-man defense, although Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Gabriel Paletta are each out injured, opening up space for Andrea Ranocchia, Davide Astori and Leonardo Bonucci.

The Azzurri are also missing midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, who is out for a month with a bruised right hip.

Not since Dino Zoff in 1998 has an Italy coach won his debut, with the likes of Marcello Lippi, Roberto Donadoni and Prandelli each struggling in friendlies.

“I want to always win,” Conte said.

On Tuesday, Italy opens European Championship qualifying at Norway and the Netherlands visits the Czech Republic.

Netherlands center forward Robin van Persie was looking forward to working with the 67-year-old Hiddink, who first coached the Netherlands from 1994-98.

“When I was 20, I nearly went to PSV mainly for Hiddink,” Van Persie told Dutch broadcaster NOS. “At the last minute, it didn’t happen and I went to Arsenal. It is fantastic to work with him.”

Midfielder Wesley Sneijder wasn’t surprised at the lengthy Dutch injury list after the World Cup and start of the new season.

“Maybe because they had a shorter vacation and a tough preparation (for the new season),” Sneijder said. “Not everybody is top fit.”

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