Italy will face China in the last 16 of the Women’s World Cup, the clash on Tuesday evening at Montpellier’s Stade de la Mosson marking the first time the two nations have ever met at the game’s showpiece event.
Italy have won three of their last four matches at the tournament after winning just two of their first six games in the competition, while – since they reached the final back in 1999 – China have lost three of their last four knockout-stage games at the World Cup, never emerging further than the quarter-finals.
A place on that same stage is now at stake, with the eventual winners taking on either Netherlands or Japan, but first they will need to get through what should be an extremely difficult challenge for both sides.
The Azzurre are expected to once again operate with their usual 4-3-3/4-3-1-2 setup, with Milena Bertolini’s side undoubtedly the surprise team of the tournament thus far. They pulled off the biggest win against the odds against Australia, going into that clash as +400 underdogs but now find themselves as the team to beat as heavy -285 favourites against China.
Forward Daniela Sabatino firmly believes they can continue their fine form. “We know that together we can go far,” the 33-year-old said this week. “We are all doing this because of how much we love the sport, and that makes it easy for us to play so well together and fight as one.”
She might find herself on the bench however, with Milan team-mate Valentina Giacinti perhaps given the nod over her as she was against Brazil. The excellent midfield three of Valentina Cernoia, Manuela Giugliano and Aurora Galli should retain their places too, the trio essential to Bertolini’s approach.
The coach demands they do not sit too deep and use a well thought-out pressing scheme when their opponents try to play out from the back, seeking to block the central area as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, China have shown themselves to be one of the most physical and well-drilled countries at the tournament. They don’t score many goals and don’t allow many either – they simply grind and grind and hope that the opposition despair, netting just a single goal and only conceding once in the group stage.
That was clearly evident in the 0-0 draw with Spain last time out, and Jia Xiuquan is expected to once again set his team in their usual 4-4-2 formation with Shuang Wang and Shanshan Wang as their key attacking threats.
A strong backline is undeniably the team’s most important department, anchored by captain Haiyan Wu and her team-mate Lin Yuping, with Pen Hang and Shanshan Liu providing support in the wide areas. They could well be susceptible to Italy’s pace however, the centre-back pair often having problems quick opposition movements and the Azzurre will almost certainly seek to exploit the space behind them.
With an attacking strategy based on long balls from the back, China might also struggle to break down a well organised Italy side, but expect this game to be tense, tight affair that will probably be decided by a single goal either way.