This may have been the best possible result for Italy. The 1-0 loss to Brazil means the girls will not grow overconfident, the contentious nature of the decisive penalty means they should not get demoralised, and their final placement at the top of Group C means they will reap the highest advantage going into the last 16.
At this point, it seems legitimate to hope for a decent run from these former underdogs. The Azzurre held their own against everything the competition threw at them, and they were particularly impressive last night face to one of the tournament's original favourites, the Verdeoro of legendary striker Marta, aka the 'Pele in skirts'.
The Brazilians played true to their cultural imprint, attacking relentlessly from the word ‘go’, and with eye-catching brio to boot. The Italians, on the other hand, did not play like Italians at all: they were proactive in possession and equally-aggressive moving forward - a choice of strategy that was all the more surprising as they were already assured of qualification.
The result was 45 minutes of some of the most spectacular, sparkling football we've seen at this World Cup, with end-to-end attacks that alternated the trickery of the South Americans (spearheaded by an inspired Marta) to the remarkable tactical geometries of the Europeans.
Debinha's first-touch backheel shot could easily have turned into the goal of the tournament, had goalkeeper Laura Giuliani not pulled off a miraculous save. And yet Barbara Bonansea's flying scissor-kick minutes later was every bit as stunning, it too dying in the goalkeeper's arms.
Bonansea confirmed her status as Italy's best resource going forward. She is a smart, vibrant player, capable of attacking from all directions. That said, against Brazil the real stars were our midfielders. Aurora Galli and Manuela Giugliano were both excellent, but the one who impressed the most was Valentina Cernoia. A true asset to her XI, she was constantly shutting down passing lanes, keeping the Brazilian wingers on the leash and reorganising play in possession.
The frantic rhythm of those first 45 minutes could hardly be kept up, and so the game slowed down in the second half. As against Australia and Jamaica, the Azzurre now relied on the excellence of their defence to carry them unscathed to the end. That would have been a winning tactic too, had it not been for the unbelievably-generous penalty awarded to the Brazilians (and converted, inexorably, by Marta).
There is no point going over the referee's decision again, especially in light of the final standings in Group C. Instead, the real takeaway is how the Verdeoro needed that 'gift' in the first place. Italy have now played against two of the strongest teams at this tournament, but they are yet to concede from open play, even though their tactics are anything but conservative. It seems the old spirit of Franco Baresi and Fabio Cannavaro has no trouble living on in the X chromosome.
Even so, the Azzurre are much more than just a good team with an excellent defence. Their strength lies in their ductility: they seem to have solutions to almost all sorts of problems. They are just as efficient playing aggressively as they are reactively, they have specialists like 'the terminator' Girelli and 'the brick-wall' Sara Gama, combined with adaptive footballers like Bonansea and Galli, while all three of their starting midfielders can both attack and defend.
Cherry on the cake, these Azzurre seem to pull a new ace out of the sleeve with every game. We touched on Cernoia's revelation, but right-back Alia Guagni was equally phenomenal, providing bursts of speed down that right wing, which added a whole new dimension to the Italian offence.
My only reservations with regards to this team are related to their endurance. Coach Milena Bertolini's 4-3-3 puts very high demands on the midfield trio, and players like Cernoia, Giugliano, Bonansea and Girelli are getting little to no rest at all. I'm not saying this is a critical weakness (yet), but we are only three games into an utterly gruelling tournament and already the Azzurre seem to be losing steam in the second halves of games.
This only worries me because competitors like the US and France are athletically so impressive. Their players are bigger and more powerful, and they seem much better equipped than the Italians to go a full 90 playing at full steam. When the physical difference is so marked, there is only so much that tactics and skill can do to compensate - and almost nothing if our players reach the game tired in the first place.
There will be time to find out if these concerns are well-founded. In any case, Bertolini's girls have shown remarkable tactical evolution in only three matches, having gone from repeatedly falling for the offside trap against the Australians to thinking their way out of Brazil's midfield mazes. If they do no more than playing like they know, the Azzurre should already have one foot in the quarter-finals. And it's incredible how good it feels to write that.