Italy may have been considered a bit of an afterthought (albeit an intriguing one) when the World Cup started a few weeks ago, but thanks to a string of impressive performances through the group stage, punctuated by their upset victory over Australia and dominant turn against Jamaica, the Azzurre not only outperformed expectations, they won the got-dang group! Even in their lone blemish—last week's loss to Brazil—Milena Bertolini's side still looked well-organized, efficient and dangerous.
The knee-jerk response to Italy making it this far may be to assume they're simply playing with house money at this point, but Italy earned their way here and aren't likely to be satisfied with congenial rewards. Thanks to stellar performances from, among others, Barbara Bonansea, Cristiana Girelli, Laura Giuliani and Manuela Giugliano, Italy have advanced to the knockout stages for the first time since 1991. Coincidentally enough, that year's World Cup was played in China, who are Italy's opponent in the Round of 16.
That China even made it this far owes as much to the small pool of nations at this tournament as it does to their actual quality. In three group stage matches, China was a perfect 1-1-1 with a 0 goal differential. In other words, they won, they lost, they drew and did so while scoring one goal and conceding one goal. So while their offense was anemic, the play at the back was (from outward appearances at least) quite solid.
If Italy have any chance of advancing and meeting the winner of Netherlands vs Japan this weekend, they have to unleash that same attacking monster that ran roughshod through the group stages.
Italy vs. China
Kickoff: 18:00 CET/12:00 EDT
Venue: Stade de la Masson, Montepellier
Streaming: Fubo TV