In a sunny afternoon in Montpellier, Italy beat China 2-0.
It was a thrilling end-to-end contest as both sides really gave it everything, but in the end Italy had more sharpness in front of goal. What did we learn?
1. Italy’s incredible energy
No one gave Italy much of a chance in France as they were playing at their first World Cup this century. But true to Italian football form the Azzurre have shown up and shocked a whole load of people, equalling their best-ever showing at a World Cup by reaching the quarter-final.
And they’ve done it with serious style. Sure there’s been plenty of rugged defending (stereotypes die hard, eh?) with Italy conceding just twice all tournament: one a penalty the other a rebound from a saved penalty, but they are not a defensive side, they flood forwards with gusto.
Italy play with tremendous verve. Their forwards aren’t afraid to shoot on sight and they have the technique to make those shots count. Barbara Bonansea is a forward of fantastic ability and she really sets the tone out on the pitch but honestly it’s the fact that every single player gives their everything which allows Italy to become more than the sum of their parts.
2. Gama and Linari: true gladiators
Great Italian sides always have great Italian defenders at the heart of them, and this side is no different. Sara Gama and Elena Linari are impeccable as a defensive duo. Perhaps not the most flawless in terms of positional play but the way in which they excel at intercepting the ball and recovering it from opponents makes them so hard to bypass. Gama’s is a remarkable leader whose coolness under pressure makes her the perfect on-pitch avatar of coach Milena Bertolini, herself a former-defender.
From the minute you saw Linari belting out the Italian national anthem with enough passion to shame Gianluigi Buffon, you knew that she and her captain Gama would bring something special. And they really did. The Chinese attack was frenetic and throwing every kind of pass and cross at the Italian defence, yet Gama and Linari stood tall every time.
Even when Linari missed an an easy headed clearance just just over 10 minutes left, allowing Li Ying to run in on goal, the Italian managed to scramble back into defence and get the ball away. She is an absolute colossus and it’s absolutely no surprise that she plays for Atlético Madrid. Even though the women’s Atleti are not in the same image as the men’s, Linari is pure Cholismo and it just feels so right.
3. Giancinti vs. Wu
Considering this match was end-to-end action where both sides genuinely went for it, the opening goal that set the tone was an almost entirely personal duel between Valentina Giacinti vs. Wu Haiyan.
First, Wu had the chance to make an easy clearance but Giacinti’s excellent pressing means that the Chinese captain’s hoik clear hit the Italian and immediately started a counter. Giacinti raced clear but cut back and fed it across to Bonansea. The forward attempted a gorgeous cut pass inside the right-back but Elisa Bartoli’s shot was blocked by a heroic save from Peng Shimeng.
Except as this had all been going on, Giacinti and Wu had been both drifting slowly infield after their duel on the Italian right. Wu was always between Giacinti and the ball so she had the situation in hand, except she got too comfortable and didn’t check for the Italian. So when the ball rebounded off Peng, the Serie A top scorer raced ahead of the Chinese captain who could only stagger around, confused, as Giacinti hammered Italy into the lead with a quality leftie finish.
Given how much of China’s gameplan rests on their defence, this goal was a brutal bodyblow from which they never really recovered and it was all thanks to Valentina Giancinti outfighting and outthinking Wu Haiyan.
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4. Supersub Galli strikes again!
Aurora Galli scored twice coming off the bench against Jamaica in Italy’s second game of the tournament. She turned an impressive 3-0 win into a monumental 5-0 win. And her reward for that was a starting spot in the final group game against Brazil. There, she played fine enough but she lost her starting spot for this game.
However she came on for Cristiana Girelli after just 39 minutes against China, presumably as a result of injury, and she really played well. Not only was she energetic and focused in terms of defence and attack, but just as she did against Jamaica she made a huge difference to the tone and tenor of the result.
With the second half barely five minutes old, Galli took possession at the edge of the Chinese box. She was in acres of space, with China neglecting to close her down, and so she took aim and unleashed a corkscrew of a shot low into the bottom corner of the net. It was a delightfully audacious effort, and turned Italy’s precarious lead into a genuinely solid and secure one.
Now with a quarter-final looming, Bertolini has a real quandary on her hands. Does she keep reward Galli’s goal with another start, or does she keep faith with Girelli (or perhaps someone else) to ensure that she always has Galli available on the bench, ready at any moment to change the game with a swing of her boot.
5. Italy must professionalise
Despite boasting massive teams like Juventus, Fiorentina and Roma – and attracting star foreign players like Eni Aluko… The women’s Serie A is still not a professional league. Yes, because some of the teams are still semi-pro, the league has decided to institute amateur rules to make it fair for everyone.
That is absurd.
What Italy needs is mass investment so that all their teams can professionalise. Because the progress of the Italian national team will go hand-in-hand with the progress of the Italian league. Just one player in the Italian squad (Elena Linari) is based outside Italy, so it should be obvious just how important it is for the league to raise itself to the standard of its players, so that it can in turn lift up the standard of the national team and lead to even more Italian heroics.