While we like to think of the history of Italian football being replete with paradigm shifting goal scorers, Italy has (traditionally) made their mark via the counter-attack. If you can strangle your opponent’s attack to the edge of frustration and then strike back in the blink of an eye, you stand a pretty good chance of winning. Some times shots don't hit their mark and crosses sail wide, but a well organized defense is self propelled and not subject to such wild swings. It's not always pretty, but it's worked pretty well for the Azzurri over the years.
Under the leadership of Milena Bertolini, herself a former central defender, Italy's women followed that well-worn path to finish first in their qualification group, allowing only four goals in eight matches (two of which came in the final round of qualifying after Italy already booked their pass) while sporting a +15 goal differential. And while their offense wasn't prolific, they received more than enough punch from the Juve duo of Cristiana Girelli and Barbara Bonansea and have Serie A's current scoring champion, Milan's Valentina Giacinti, coming off the bench to boot.
Italy are not a huge or powerful team, but thanks to Bertolini's commitment to training—she called the players to Coverciano in early May—the Azzurre are well-drilled and organized, all of which facilitates their cerebral style. While Bertolini admits to not being a slave to formations, she tends to rely on variants of the 4-3-3 or the classic 4-4-2, making the most of her versatile set of midfielders, most notably Juventus’ Barbara Bonansea.
So, with Italy kicking off their World Cup quest on Sunday, let's take a quick look at some of the key players and challenges facing our beloved Azzurre. (We covered Roma's own Elisa Bartoli earlier in the year, so we'll leave her out of this section)
Sara Gama: Defender
The keeper of the league's most signature hairdo just so happens to be one of Italy's most experienced players. With time spent at home (most notably with Brescia and Juventus) and abroad (PSG), Gama brings a wealth of experience to the Azzurre, and with her 100+ caps, she's also among the most experienced members of this squad, making it no surprise she's also the captain. Gama is tall, fast and composed; all traits a counter-attacking/underdog team needs in a tournament like this. Expect her to play every single minute Italy can manage over the next month.
Barbara Bonansea: Midfield/Forward
Arguably Italy's most talented player, the soon to be 28-year-old attacker has what experts might call a full trophy cabinet. Between her time in Brescia and now Juventus, Bonansea has amassed an incredible 10 trophies, including four Scudetti in the last five season. And it's not as if she was riding coattails either: she has scored over 90 league goals since the start of the 2012-2013 season when she moved from Torino to Brescia.
This past season was particularly impressive for Bonansea. Not only did she score 13 goals in 21 appearances, capture the Scudetto and Coppa Italia, but she did all that while studying economics at the University of Torino—female players in Italy are sadly not full professionals yet.
As you can see from the clip above, Bonansea has the requisite close control, agility and know-how to contribute in virtually all facets of attack, and she will, much like Gama, likely play every single available minute for Bertolini this month.
As incredible as Bonansea is, she's not even Italy's number ten, an honor that falls to yet another Juventus player.
Cristiana Girelli: Forward
To call Girelli a goal scoring machine would be an understatement to the word machine. Since debuting as an 18-year-old with Verona in 2008, Girelli has gone on to score 173 goals in only 205 league appearances, failing to crack double digits only twice. Fortunately for Bertolini, that scoring form carried over to the national team as well. With six goals in eight World Cup Qualifying matches, Girelli was as important to the Azzurre's success as she was Juve's.
While she may not have the same grab bag of skills as Bonansea, Girelli's star is undoubtedly on the rise. Tabbed by Puma as a spokesperson for their new line of boots, Girelli's image has been plastered all over social media since February, and with a successful stint in France, she could very well become the face of the Azzurre.
Capable of playing on the left or right, and even as an attacking midfielder, Girelli gives Italy yet another layer of diversity in attack. No matter where she plays, if her qualifying record holds true to form, she'll be Italy's most potent threat in front of goal.
Despite Girelli's impressive work up front, she is not, in fact, Italy's most prolific goal scorer.
Valentina Giacinti: Forward
Giacinti, a 25-year-old forward from Bergamo, notched 21 goals in 21 appearances for AC Milan this past season, earning her second capocannoniere in a row. Since the start of the 2012-2013 season in which she was playing for Napoli, Giacinti has racked up 145 goals in only 169 appearances, including her absurd 2015-2016 season in which she scored 32 times in only 1,900 minutes.
With that sort of record you'd think Giacinti would be leading the line for the Azzurre each and every match, and, well, you'd be wrong. Despite that prolific scoring record, Giacinti was most often used as a second half substitute, logging only 217 minutes for Italy during their most recent competitive matches: the 2019 World Cup Qualification campaign and the Cyprus Cup this past March, in which she still managed to bang home four goals in only 67 minutes of action.
Giacinti isn't necessarily blessed with blinding speed, but as you can see from that highlight package, she has an incredible first touch (particularly in the box), some deceptive agility and that proverbial nose for goal that all top strikers possess; what's more, she can beat you with both feet.
Depending on the tactics of the day, Bertolini tends to favor the Juve duo of Bonansea and Girelli up top, or even Giacinti's Milan teammate Daniela Sabatino, but if Italy are in need of some second half punch, you can bet your bottom dollar Giacinti will get the call. And who knows, if Bertolini opts for a 4-3-3, she might even start alongside Sabatino and Girelli with Bonansea slotted back into the midfield.
Those are but four of the names and faces you should know ahead of Italy's June 9th opener against Australia. Of course, Roma captain Elisa Bartoli should see significant action at left back, while you'll want to keep an eye on 21-year-old Milan midfielder Manuela Giugliano, Fiorentina fullback Alia Guagni and Juve defender Aurora Galli.
Italy's World Cup hopes were dealt a somewhat swift blow when they were cast into Group C alongside Australia and Brazil, the 6th and 10th ranked teams in the world, respectively. Along with Jamaica (ranked 53rd), Italy (ranked 15th) will have to score an upset against either of those heavyweights, or at the very least share points with either Australia or Brazil to stand a chance at moving on to the knockout stages.
Sunday, June 9th: Australia vs. Italy
13:00 CET/7:00 EDT | Stade du Hainaut, Valenciennes
Friday, June 14th: Jamaica vs. Italy
18:00 CET/12:00 EDT | Stade Auguste-Delaune, Reims
Tuesday, June 18th: Italy vs. Brazil
21:00 CET/3:00 EDT |Stade du Hainaut, Valenciennes
How To Watch
In the United States, Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 (English), Telemundo and Universo (Spanish). In the UK all matches will be carried on the BBC. In Australia turn to Optus Sport while CTV/RDS/TSN will air the tournament in Canada. For other options check here.
For our part, we'll be tracking Italy through their three group stage matches and hopefully beyond. The odds may be slightly stacked against them, but they have the defensive work rate and scorers opportunistic enough to snatch a defeat at a moment's notice.