It really would have taken a small miracle for China to beat Italy. The ladies from the Far East had a well-organised squad, but their greatest weakness coincided with the Azzurre's outstanding strength: having scored only once in their three games to that point, the Chinese were as bad at banging goals in as our girls are at keeping them out.
Since Italy has also shown some considerable attacking prowess, it seemed natural – all tactical permutations aside – to expect the girls in blue to outscore their opponents, and this is exactly what happened.
Milena Bertolini's girls did not dominate the game, but then they didn't have to. Their passing and possession stats stayed more or less on par with those of the Chinese for the first half, after which they sat back and ceded terrain, wisely choosing to defend a lead which their opponents would always struggle to wrest away.
The shift to more conservative tactics was dictated not just by conscious strategy, but by necessity, as Italy's strikers were having trouble giving their best, even against a defence that looked far from impenetrable. Star striker Barbara Bonansea had her worst World Cup game to date, uncharacteristically misplacing simple passes or losing possession, while Cristiana Girelli was taken off at the 39th due to heat-stroke.
We warned after the game against Brazil that Italy's greatest weakness appeared to be their athletic endurance. While the chafing temperature certainly did the Azzurre no favours, yesterday they unfortunately confirmed our suspicions. Compared to teams like France or Germany, the ragazze are really struggling to stay sharp, and this is inevitably going to cost them.
In fact, this very game against China might have taken a very different turn had it not been for Valentina Giacinti, who found and awakened her inner Tyrannosaurus Rex. She was an absolute cyclone coming forward and more than compensated for the opaque performances of her two partners in Italy's tridente.
It took Giacinti a paltry nine minutes to find the back of the net, her goal narrowly ruled offside, and then another six minutes to rampage through a crowd of teammates and opponents in the box and smash in a loose ball that nobody could quite put down. The Rossonera was excellent through and through, and if she can bring this level of energy against the Netherlands in the Quarter-Finals, we will really have a match.
The second goal was the work of Aurora Galli, a beautiful, long-range volley less powerful, but no less precise than her masterwork against Jamaica. It was another eye-catching piece of technique, one which extinguished the hopes of a resurgent Chinese team in the very first minutes of the second half. From that point onwards, it was just a matter of managing the advantage for the Azzurre, and this happens to be their specialty.
Galli started this game from the bench, and only came on because Girelli couldn't take the heat (literally, not figuratively). One imagines that the idea was to give the Juventus midfielder a little bit of breathing time – no doubt CT Bertolini is aware of her team's flagging form, and in any case Valentina Bergamaschi is just too good an alternative not to be used.
Yet Galli has been so solid to this point that surely she must be started for every remaining game. She is a truly superb midfielder, with strong passing and tackling skills and a penchant for finding the net from inside and outside of the box. She has notched goals three times already despite having started only two games, which makes her Italy's joint top-scorer alongside Girelli. She simply cannot be left on the bench.
Her unique abilities will become especially valuable as fatigue begins to take its toll. The Azzurre have now played four out of a maximum of seven possible games in the World Cup. They are past the halfway mark, and yet this is where each stride feels longer and heavier, and every mile seems to get longer. The Quarter Finals were as far as anyone reasonably hoped Italy might make it in this World Cup. From this point onwards, the competition enters a different class of football.
China represented a soft opponent for Italy, but their next obstacle, the Netherlands, are a force to be reckoned with. They are the holding European champions and they just knocked out Japan, one of the finest teams in this tournament. Taking them down will require a sensational performance by the Azzurre. At this point, we expect no less.