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Four takeaways from Italy’s humbling loss to Sweden in Group G showdown

Went things went bad, things went bad in very quick fashion — and that was not a good thing to see happen.

Sweden v Italy - FIFA Women’s World Cup Photo by Jose Hernandez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Well ... where to begin?

Coming off a 1-0 win over Argentina to open group play at the Women’s World Cup, Italy entered Saturday’s game against Group G favorite Sweden with the chance to start 2-for-2 and get the upperhand in said group that many predicted the Azzurre to advance out of. What happened against the group favorites? Something that started brightly yet came crashing down to earth like a meteor in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Looking at the final scoreline, a 5-0 Sweden win, you would have thought it was complete domination by one team from start to finish, the kind of game in which Italy was absolutely overwhelmed from the opening minute and had absolutely no answer to stop it. While that last part of having no response is true, this was the kind of performance in which Melina Bertolini’s Italy squad was the better side for much of the first half. No, seriously. They were.

The problem was, in short, Italy’s early pressure didn’t result in anything.

The result? Italy left the door open for Sweden, and like the good team they are they took full advantage of it. One goal turned into two, that turned into a 3-0 lead going into the half and away Sweden went with Italy left completely in the dust. (Or maybe looking up at another Swedish player winning a header?)

The bright start went bad — and it went bad in a hurry ... and then some.

The only real positive to take out of all this?

A spot in the knockout rounds — and the piece of history that comes with it since Italy has never made it past the group stage in consecutive Women’s World Cups — is still very much alive. They just can’t afford to see what happened against Sweden take place again.

Just how they — the players and, maybe more importantly, their manager — respond to this humbling defeat will determine just that.

1) Italy is lacking a reference point up front

In the win over Argentina, this first spot was about Cristiana Girelli.

In the loss to Sweden, this first spot is about the lack of Cristiana Girelli.

As much as somebody like Chiara Beccari is a potential star for the future, the step up from Argentina to Sweden proved to be a little too much for the 18-year-old Juventus Women-owned starlet. Beccari wasn’t awful, but it definitely wasn’t the promising showing that her Women’s World Cup debut was a few days earlier against Argentina.

Girelli ended up being an unused sub against the Swedes. That was probably a result of the score being completely out of hand by the time halftime arrived. But both Girelli never stepping foot onto the field should have never reached that point. With Bertolini deciding to change things up in terms of who played as the No. 9 and Valentina Giacinti heading to the bench, going with Beccari rather than Girelli proved to be the wrong way to go.

Of course, that’s a little bit of hindsight playing into things. Maybe Girelli ends up having fewer than the 37 touches that Beccari did before being subbed off in the second half. We just don’t know. But the fact that Girelli has only played about 10 minutes through two group stage games and Italy has all of one goal to show for it is not exactly lending things to believe they can get things done while their No. 10 is on the sidelines watching.

You need to win your next game or else you could risk going home. You’ve got one of the best goal scorers to ever do it for club and country sitting there on your bench. She’s scored your only goal at the tournament so far. It’s time for Girelli — or whatever the Italian broadcasters feel like calling her over the next few days — to be the spearhead of the 4-2-3-1 that Bertolini has been fielding.

2) Sweden excels at set pieces. Italy couldn’t stop ‘em.

One team is very much taller than the other.

Said team that is much taller than the other made that be known and completely flipped the game on its head in the final 10 minutes of the first half.

Once Sweden broke the dam, it was impossible to stop things from getting out of hand. And virtually all of the damage was done from dead-ball situations.

Sweden v Italy: Group G - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Photo by Ane Frosaker/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

As the picture above shows, Sweden not only used its height to its advantage, but Italy’s defending of set pieces was very much less than you would like it to be. Sure, some of Sweden’s players made Italy goalkeeper Francesca Durante, who stands just under 6-foot tall, look relatively average height, but Sweden’s effectiveness on set pieces — especially so inswinging corner kicks right into the 6-yard box — and Italy not being prepared for it is what turned this one from a bright start to a runaway win for the women in yellow and blue.

It came as no surprise that when things were going well to open this game that Italy’s defense was very much on point and limiting pretty much anything that Sweden did. But when the good times turned bad in a hurry, away Sweden went and Italy couldn’t do much at all to slow them down.

With a third and final group stage game in which losing means you’re going home and having a little more vacation time before the club seasons gets underway, another major misstep or two defensively could mean the Women’s World Cup stay ends Wednesday.

3) Sofia Cantore helped the attack, but the goals are still lacking

The one change in Bertolini’s starting lineup was replacing Giacinti with Cantore, who is coming off a relatively quiet first season back with Juventus Women.

Cantore proved to be one of the bright spots both during the Azzurre’s strong start and on the whole on an otherwise tough night to see take place. She floated in between being a center-ish midfielder and then an all-out winger in attack, as noted by The Athletic’s Michael Cox aka Mr. Zonal Marking himself, and it was rather effective — especially so when she had room to operate down the right wing on the counter.

But even the addition of Cantore couldn’t kick-star Italy’s attack and result in goals. All of the pressure that Italy produced early on wasn’t taken advantage of in full, and with Sweden using a 10-minute stretch to close the first half to flip things in a completely different direction, those missed opportunities loomed even larger in what could have been if it was tied up or Italy down by just one at the half.

Sweden v Italy: Group G - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Photo by Hagen Hopkins - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

This goes beyond just the lack of Girelli. It’s not that simple, but that would be a nice place to start, wouldn’t it? (Emphasis on “start” because ... you know.)

Italy needs more from Barbara Bonansea, who had a very quiet performance against Sweden. They need more from the midfield, especially Manuela Giugliano, who was one of the breakout performers of the Women’s World Cup four years ago. They need more from whoever is in the attack or midfield when it comes to trying to score goals.

They have the talent to be a dangerous team in front of goal. Now it’s just about actually going out and doing just that.

4) There’s now no room for error

Coming into the Euros, we talked about how Italy’s expectations have been elevated. Simply just putting up a good fight wasn’t good enough anymore. Getting out of the group stage, as the Azzurre did at the Women’s World Cup four years ago, was now the benchmark for success.

Another loss and things will have the same kind of feelings that last summer did — especially because of all the changes that were to try and usher in the new generation of talent coming through the national team setup.

South Africa gave Sweden one hell of a fight in the group stage opener for both teams last week. And now Italy needs to not lose against that same South Africa team that played to a 2-2 draw with Argentina. If they play more like they did the first half-hour compared to the subsequent 60 minutes against Sweden, then not losing certainly seems like a good possibility of happening.

But, as this team has proven, just because they play well doesn’t mean it will translate into goals and then into a win. They need both to happen — and because of the loss to Sweden, they need to simply win and leave no doubt as they try to get into the round of 16 and potentially meet one of the tournament favorites in the form of the United States.