After watching a healthy portion of the expanded 32-team field begin their Women’s World Cup campaigns, Monday was the chance for Italy to officially join the party.
It wasn’t as simple as one might have thought, but Italy opened up its quest to make it to a second straight knockout round on the world stage on a positive note. And there just so happened to be a heavy Juventus Women influence on the game-deciding moment.
Cristiana Girelli’s late goal all of three minutes after coming on was the lone ball to find the back of the net the entire evening, giving Italy a 1-0 win over Argentina and setting up a battle for the top spot in Group G when they face Sweden over the weekend. It was the goal that the Azzurre had been seeking all game long, with both Arianna Caruso and Valentina Giacinti seeing goals called back after being called offside on either side of halftime.
Was it a perfect win?
Of course not. But it was a good win.
And with so much roster turnover from the last major tournament that Italy played at, getting the first win out of the way right off the bat can do a whole lotta good when it comes to confidence and trying to build some momentum to get through the group stage.
Here are a few takeaways from what is hopefully a stay at the Women’s World Cup that looks a lot like what Italy did four years ago.
1) Cristiana Girelli forever
Knowing Girelli’s goal scoring ability, there were more than a few folks perplexed as to why the Juve and Italy No. 10 wasn’t included in the starting lineup. With Italy manager Milena Bertolini choosing to go with a 4-2-3-1 formation, there was always going to be a tough choice to make between Girelli and Valentina Giacinti.
Come the 83rd minute, it was Girelli time.
Three minutes later, Girelli was doing what she does best — scoring a deciding goal.
This was a Girelli kind of goal to its core. She timed her jump on the cross from Lisa Boattin perfectly, maybe got a little bit of a deflection right after but had enough on the ball to see it loop over the keeper’s out-stretched arm and into the back of the net.
Then the party was on.
We don’t know if Girelli’s game-winning header will result in Bertolini switching things up for the showdown with Sweden on Saturday. But if Girelli is again starting from the bench, you know one thing is for sure — one of the best Italian goal scorers to ever do it is still very much capable of doing
2) Like with Juve, Lisa Boattin is crucial to Italy’s success
There was one player who finished in the triple digits when it came to touches on the ball.
You can probably figure out where I’m going with this — it was Boattin.
To Juventus Women followers, seeing Boattin be such a huge part of the build-up and attack from her fullback position on the left is no surprise. It’s been that way for years now. It’s why, despite being a fullback, she was named Serie A player of the year two seasons ago. She’s certainly made strides with her defending, but it’s the impact on the attacking end of the field where she is truly a difference maker in more way than one.
Boattin’s cross in to Girelli was about as good as they come — and it was one of the longest attempts she had on the night. It proved to be a ball that only Girelli could get to, and it gave you plenty of flashbacks of those two connecting for a goal when they’re wearing black and white stripes.
For a player who had only 99 minutes over three substitute appearances at the 2019 Women’s World Cup to now be a central part of the team’s success four years later, it just says what kind of player the 26-year-old Boattin has developed into.
But then again, for those of us who have been following Boattin’s play the last few years as she’s become more and more important to the Juve squad, seeing her now thrive at this level of the game isn’t a surprise. Neither is the fact that she’s the one who set Girelli up for the game-winning goal. It’s not the first time they’ve done that, and it won’t be the last.
3) The kids held their own
Twelve months ago, there were veterans galore in Italy’s starting lineups at the Euros. It was mostly the same spine that allowed the Azzurre to advance to the knockout rounds of the Women’s World Cup three years earlier, surpassing many expectations that people had for them.
There were still veterans included in the starting lineup forMonday’s group stage opener. But there was also a twist: a pair of teenagers — 18-year-old Juve-owned Chiara Beccari and 16-year-old Barcelona starlet Giulia Dragoni — making their Women’s World Cup debuts.
Beccari, who will spend the 2023-24 season on loan at Sassuolo, definitely grew into the game after a relatively quiet first half. Playing in a wider position than she’s used to when she’s at the club level, Beccari was able to combine with Boattin and Caruso on a few occasions to put pressure on the Argentina backline. Beccari also finished tied for the team lead with Boattin with a pair of key passes.
Not bad for somebody who a couple of months ago was playing for Serie A newbies Como, huh?
It was the same kind of deal with Dragoni, who was easily the biggest surprise starter of all of Bertolini’s choices. She certainly was fazed by the moment even though she was playing in the biggest game of her young life. And her play showed it, as Dragoni finished with the second-highest pass success rate (90.9) of anybody on the Italy squad.
Much like the decision to potentially start Girelli against Sweden, it still remains to be seen if the two teenagers have earned a chance at a second straight start. But it’s safe to say the youngsters definitely didn’t flop in their biggest starts with the Azzurre, so that’s gotta be a pretty good place to start.
4) There is still plenty of rom to improve as Sweden awaits
Yes, the three points are nice. Getting a win to open the group stage is nice, too.
But with the win comes some very obvious things that need improvement on if they want to have a chance to make it two wins out of two to begin the group stage.
This was a classic Italy kind of game — there were chances even on top of the two goals that were called back due to offside, but nothing really came of them. Italy did a lot of things right in its build-up play against an Argentina side that was very creative in the way that it pressed up the field, in defense and some tricky Argentinian attackers and in having new starting keeper Francesca Durante a relative spectator for much of the night. But it was in attack where there was just something left to be desired.
Italy outshot Argentina 12-5, but the Azzurre only forced Vanina Correa into three saves. And this was in a game in which Italy was pretty solid across the board for much of the night.
While Sweden were far from impressive in its comeback win over South Africa, there’s still going to have to be some improvement from Italy if it’s going to be two wins in two games to begin the group stage.