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Led By Giacinti and Girelli, Italy's Attack Gives Them a Puncher's Chance Down Under

No, the Azzurre aren't likely to take home the title, but with a potent and well-balanced side, they can make some noise in the group stage and beyond.

Football woman friendly match Italy-Colombia Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

While they didn't hoist the trophy in 2019, the women of Italy were the darlings of the World Cup four summers ago in France. From Manuela Giugliano's cheeky winks during the Italian national anthem to Cristiana Girelli's brilliance in front of goal to Aurora Galli's coming out party, the Azzurre quickly became everyone's favorite underdog.

Thanks to an energetic and well-balanced squad, Milena Bertolini's side shocked experts by not only topping their group but winning their Round of 16 matchup against China, setting up a Cinderella scenario when they faced the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.

I'll spare you the glass slipper metaphor, but needless to say, Italy's fairytale ending was upended by Vivianne Miedema and the mighty Oranje, who dispatched the Azzurre 2-0 in the quarterfinals before they themselves were toppled by Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle in the final at Parc Olympique Lyonnais.

While the Italians weren't quite ready to dine at the same table as Miedema, Rapinoe, Lucy Bronze, and the rest of the game's elite, the Azzurre were definitely on the come up. They had a lot of work to do, but Italy's stock was on the rise.

So when Italy came crashing down to earth at Euro 2022, finishing dead last in Group D, scoring only two goals and managing only one draw in three group stage matches, the elation of 2019 was soon doused in disappointment. Italy wasn't expected to win the tournament, but they had a chance to prove their performance in France wasn't, in fact, a fairytale.

Between 2019's highs and 2022's lows, Italy faced a crucial question. Were they truly capable of competing with top-tier nations like the United States, the Netherlands, and Sweden? Or had their past success been a fluke? Essentially, they had to determine which tournament was the anomaly.

It will still be a couple of weeks before we have an answer to that question, but that won't stop us from taking a look at the women in blue. Who made the cut? Who are the key players? Who may surprise us? And how will Bertolini's side approach this tournament?

The Squad

With 17 of the 23 women chosen for Italy's World Cup squad playing for either Juventus (9) or Roma (8), we might as well rename this squad the Juventus-Roma Traveling All-Star Team.

Bertolini raised a few eyebrows by leaving Sara Gama, Martina Piemonte, and Aurora Galli off the final roster, but Italy's squad remains relatively unchanged from the last two major tournaments, and that continuity could pay dividends.

The Matches

Italy vs. Argentina: July 24th, 2:00 a.m. EDT, Eden Park, Auckland

Sweden vs. Italy: July 29th, 3:30 a.m. EDT, Wellington Regional Stadium, Wellington

South Africa vs. Italy: August 2nd, 3:00 a.m. EDT, Wellington Regional Stadium, Wellington

The Key Players

Cristiana Girelli

Italy v Romania: Group G - FIFA Women’s WorldCup 2023 Qualifier Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Just as she did in 2019, Girelli will be counted on to lead the line for Milena Bertolini. In 10 qualifying matches, the 32-year-old Juventus forward slotted home a team-leading eight goals while chipping in three assists for good measure. Combine that with her 15 goals and six assists for the Old Lady this past season, and Girelli is heading Down Under in fine form.

But she won't have to shoulder the goal-scoring burden alone.

Valentina Giacinti

Football, Women Italian Serie A: AS Roma award ceremony Photo by Elianto/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Roma's number nine was in lockstep with Girelli throughout World Cup qualifying, scoring seven goals while providing four assists for the Azzurre. And while she didn't quite capture the capocannoniere title for Roma last season, Giacinti's first season in the capital did not disappoint, as she grabbed 20 goals and five assists in all competitions.

The beauty of the Girelli-Giacinti combo is that it's not a zero-sum game, as the two prolific forwards frequently shared the pitch throughout the qualifying phases, swapping roles between center forward and winger.

Of course, in order for Giacinti and Girelli to feast, someone has to cook.

Manuela Giugliano

Manuela Giugliano of AS Roma holds the trophy as she... Photo by Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images

Accuse us of being homers, if you will, but if Manu isn't the best Italian midfielder in the game, then who is? What she lacks in stature, Giugliano makes up in tenacity, touch, and creativity. With the number 10 shirt on her back for Roma, Giugliano led Serie A in shot-creating actions while placing second in key passes and passes into the final third.

Throughout her international career, we've seen Giugliano's role morph from a traditional, play-making number 10 to a relentless box-to-box number 6, literally and figuratively—she swaps out Roma's famous number 10 shirt for the 6 when on international duty.

Whether she's directly behind Giacinti and Girelli or seated just ahead of the back line, you can count on Giugliano to break lines, stretch the field and split defenses with her pinpoint passing.

Ariana Caruso

AS Roma v Juventus- Women Serie A Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

The Roman-born Caruso (don't worry, we'll bring her home someday) flits between the forward ranks and the midfield, but no matter where she sets up camp, the 23-year-old produces. Last season in Serie A, Caruso was one of the best players in the league, if not all of Europe, slotting home five goals to go along with 10 assists in approximately 1,800 minutes.

In eight qualifying appearances, Caruso was equally dynamic, scoring seven times and dropping two dimes in only 587 minutes. But the key to Caruso's brilliance may be her versatility. In those 587 minutes, Caruso saw starts at center-forward and all three midfield positions in Bertolini's 4-3-3.

Caruso's positional versatility and blend of scoring and playmaking should keep defenses off-kilter as she bobs and weaves in between and amongst Giacinti, Girelli, and even Giugliano.

But this is Italy we're talking about, so we can't close out this section without mentioning the defense.

Elena Linari

Italy v Morocco - Women´s International Friendly Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

A stalwart for club and country, Linari saw more action than any other outfield player during Italy’s World Cup qualification campaign, anchoring the defense alongside Gama. And with Gama inexplicably left off the squad for Australia/New Zealand, Linari will assume the mantle as the captain of the defense. Tall, physical, and intense, Linari will be the beating heart of Italy's backline.

How Will They Play, and How Can They Advance?

Italy Open Training Session - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Photo by Fiona Goodall - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Throughout Italy's qualification campaign, Bertolini favored a four-woman backline, alternating between a 4-3-3 and base 4-4-2. No matter the formation, she leaned heavily on the combined attacking talents of Girelli, Giacinti, and Caruso, who accounted for 22 of the Azzurre's 40 goals. Throw in veteran standout Barbara Bonansea and sparkplugs like Annamaria Serturini and Benedetta Glionna off the bench, and Bertolini has no shortage of attacking options.

While that's all well and good, Italy's chances of survival begin and end at the back. Drawn into a group with third-ranked Sweden and talented Argentinian and South African sides, Italy's path to the knockout round may rest with Linari, Lisa Boatin, Elisa Bartoli, and goalkeeper Laura Giuliani, who will no doubt be under constant pressure in Italy's three group stage fixtures.

However, as we said at the outset, this is a remarkably well-balanced squad. With a 9-0-1 (W-D-L) record in qualification and a +38 goal differential, Italy encountered little opposition in their path to Australia/New Zealand 2023.

But, if we're being real, they're likely to get smoked by Sweden—who should waltz through the group with a 3-0 record—so Italy's chances of survival depend on how they fare against Argentina and South Africa, two sides they have never faced.

You can never escape luck in those scenarios, but with talents like Girelli, Giacinti, and Caruso leading the line, Italy can catch Argentina and South Africa off guard, while Linari, Giuliani, and Boatin should lock things down at the back.

It won't be easy by any means, but Italy can repeat their 2019 run to the quarterfinals.

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