I'm sure I won't be the first or the last to say it, but Italy were facing two opponents today in their quarterfinal match in Valenciennes: The reigning European champions Netherlands and the oppressive heat and humidity. With temperatures hovering around 90 degrees at kickoff, and without a cloud in sight, mother nature would have her say in this match, and even with cooling breaks interspersed throughout, the energy in this match was quickly sapped by the sweltering summer conditions.
Still, despite that heat, it was business as usual for Italy head coach Milena Bertolini. Facing an incredibly tough opponent, Bertolini made only one change from the last time out: sitting Cristiana Girelli in favor of Valentina Bergamaschi. Girelli has been solid throughout this tournament, providing the Azzurre with scoring and creativity all over the final third, so it was a bit of an odd exclusion.
After an opening 10 minutes that could best be described as disjointed from both sides, the match found a bit of a groove as it headed towards the quarter hour mark. The heat was still a factor, but Italy took the early attacking initiative, with Valentina Giacinti finding seam after seam behind the Dutch defense. Couple that with her back tracking and serving as an outlet for Italy's fullbacks and you would have been hard pressed to find a more active player than the AC Milan striker.
Still, given the climactic conditions, Italy had to pick and choose their times to attack, but by and large they were in control for much of the first half and very nearly found a breakthrough when Barbara Bonansea flicked a ball through to Bergamaschi, but she simply couldn't get enough on it and flubbed the attempt in the end.
Giacinti would find a bit of space on the left side of the box towards the end of the half, but simply couldn't rotate her hips through the ball and the shot skirted harmlessly past the far post.
Nevertheless, this was an impressive first half from the Azzurre, who wilted to neither the heat nor the more renowned Dutch.
Things could not have been anymore different to start off the second half. The heat was still there, but the tables definitely tilted in Holland's favor to start the second half. Milena Bertolini made two changes before the hour mark, pulling off Elisa Bartoli and Barbara Bonansea for Lisa Boattin and Daniela Sabatino, respectively. Given the heat and the possibility, however slim, that this thing could go to PKs, burning two subs before the hour mark was a bit of a head scratcher from Bertolini.
No matter what changes she made, the Netherlands began to show their class and exert their dominance in the second half, as they nearly tripled Italy's offensive output by the hour mark, and nearly broke this match open, clanging one shot off the cross bar and barely missing a daisy cutting free kick.
Still, Italy were doing enough to fend off the onslaught, but given the heat and humidity and the two early subs, it was fair to question how long Italy could hold up, and at this point in the match, they were barely able to get the ball out of their half, to say nothing of creating actual scoring chances.
That bend but don't break approach would finally break as the match moved towards the 70th minute.
Vivianee Miedema: 70th Minute (Italy 0, Netherlands 1)
Vivianne Miedema got on the end of a long looping free kick, using her height to beat Cernoia to the spot, flicking the ball past Giuliani. Not much Italy could have done here, but this goal was long overdue; the Netherlands were completely controlling the match at this point.
Bertolini would make her final sub before the 75th water break, bringing on Annamaria Serturini, Roma's leading goal scorer for Bergamaschi. It's a bit odd she didn't bring Girelli on, but Serturini scored some fantastic goals for Roma this year and is a bit of an unknown on the international stage, so perhaps the surprise element would help Italy conjure up a miracle?
Well, in a word, no. The Dutch would capitalize on another silly foul from Italy, doubling their lead off another well struck and well headed free kick.
Italy nearly pulled one back in the 83rd minute when Daniela Sabatino got behind the defense, but the Dutch keeper was able to pounce on it with relative ease. After that, it was sort of a fait accompli; Italy kept hustling and moving, but the writing was on the wall—the Dutch had crushed the Azzurre's spirits, as evidence by Cristiana Girelli's tearful expression from the bench.
In terms of the actual Xs and Os of this match, Italy followed the script that had brought them so much success at this tournament, but they simply couldn't convert on the few chances the Netherlands allowed them to have. If Giacinti could have hooked her shot a bit closer and tucked it in the far post, this match could have been entirely different. With a 1-0 lead to defend, Italy could have saved their energy and parked the bus.
We'd also be remiss if we didn't mention Bertolini's questionable substitution patterns. With 93 degree heat and oppressive humidity, Bertolini decided to make a change at the half, taking off Bartoli who was solid as the day is long; why she'd burn a sub at the half, when they just had 15 minutes of rest is beyond me, but it didn't end there.
While Bertolini can't predict the future, taking off Bonansea and not even using Girelli in this match is inexcusable. Giacinti did all she could this afternoon, but she had no help up front, and as excited as we were to see Serturini, surely it made more sense to use Girelli when your life is on the line.
In the end, these weren't the reasons they lost, but it made their task that much more difficult, and I’ll be interested to see how she explains those substitutions.
We'll have a more contextualized look at Italy's run through the World Cup at a later date, but suffice it to say, they exceed expectations and showed the world they're a team and nation on the rise. There is enough talent on this squad, front to back, to think the Azzurre will be a major player in Europe and on the global stage for years to come—so much of the core of this team are just barely starting their careers and should be at their apex in 2023. And with more time to gel and some infusion of their impressive stock of U-23 talent, there is every reason to think that reaching the quarterfinals will be their new bare minimum.
Their miracle run didn't go as far as we thought, but fans of Italian football should be incredibly proud of this side and incredibly excited for their future.