Italy’s first trip to the knockout stages in 20 years was a hot one. Literally. With temperatures in the low to mid 80s and not a cloud in sight, the conditions weren’t optimal for a fast and freewheeling encounter between Italy and China; this was a water-break match if ever there was one. Looking to make quick work of China and beat the heat in the process, Milena Bertolini ran out an attacking 4-3-1-2 formation, with Cristiana Girelli sitting behind the new strike tandem of Barbara Bonansea and CdT favorite Valentina Giacinti.
Bertolini’s subtle changes almost paid immediate dividends, but has so often been the case with Italy at this tournament, they had goals disallowed thanks to a delayed offside call, with Giacinti playing the role of victim this time around. While her goal was clearly offside, the delayed call was infuriating.
Giacinti would have her moment in the sun at the quarter mark.
Valentina Giacinti: 15th Minute (Italy 1, China 0)
As lovely as Giacinit's finish was, this goal was a testament to her positioning and patience. After forcing a turnover deep in China's final third and quickly dashing up the right flank, Vale (as she’s known) before playing the ball back to the point where Bonansea was literally begging for the ball. After Bonansea's shot was deflected, Elisa Bartoli charged on from the left before the ball was deflected again, this time to the right. And throughout all this Giacinti was calmly tracking the ball, shading to her left as the ball floated that way, before pouncing on the ball in the middle of the six, putting it away with her left foot.
Just an excellent passage of play from Italy. Starting with Giacinti's defensive work to Bonansea's ability to hold up play against four defenders to Bartoli forcing the keeper off her line to Giacinti's finish, this goal was a testament to Italy's skill and tenacity.
Italy would press on, largely working the ball through to Giacinti but failed to make another breakthrough, though they did have another goal (or at least a clear cut chance) called off thanks to, you guessed it, another delayed offside call.
As the match creeped towards the halftime mark, China began to assert themselves, stretching Italy at the back, forcing Laura Giuliani into several nervy moments; though as you can see below, the Juve keeper was more than up to the task, parrying this a would be goal over the cross bar.
Italy would feel the heat in the 39th minute (literally) as Girelli was forced to come off due to a heat related illness, with her club teammate Aurora Galli coming on in this awkwardly time substitution.
The Azzurre would survive a late rush by China, including a goal saving block by our very own Elisa Bartoli, and head into the half with a slim 1-0 lead.
Much as they did to start the match, Italy came out full throttle to start the second 45 minutes, and would double their lead before even really breaking a sweat (figuratively speaking of course).
Aurora Galli: 49th Minute (Italy 2, China 0)
Italy's second strike of the afternoon was nearly a carbon copy of the first, at least in terms of what precipitated the goal. In this instance, Italy right back Alia Guagni forced a turnover deep in Chinese territory before quickly playing it over to Gallia, who just buried this thing low and away from 20 some odd yards out, erasing whatever momentum China had built late in the first half. Th
The ensuing 20 minutes or so played on without issue, with Italy being content to maintain the status quo. Bertolini would burn her second sub just past the 70th minute, bringing on Juve’s Martina Rosucci for Juve’s Bonansea—like we said, this team is Juve-centric.
And that was really about it. Italy weathered the typical late match barrage from a trailing side, warding of China through nearly five minutes of stoppage time, sending the Chinese out of the World Cup, and we’re talking about a nation that had never failed to make the quarterfinals.
Full Highlights & Conclusion
Prior to this run in France, not only had Italy gone two full decades without a World Cup appearance, but they've already eclipsed their win total from their prior two appearances in 1991 and 1999. Needless to say, this is HUGE news. At best, Italy were an intriguing curiosity heading into this tournament, but thanks to their suffocating defense, their pointed attack and their impressive depth, the Azzurre have a real chance at doing something special this summer.
The Azzurre will take on the winners of the Netherlands vs Japan on Saturday, June 29th.