And so it happened: the fatigue conundrum, which had been dogging the Azzurre from at least their third game in the Women's World Cup , finally caught up with them. Against a Dutch team with higher firepower but lower fortifications, the Italians held their own honourably for one half of the game, and then succumbed to the team that was able to keep the highest pace for the longest stretch of time.
There are two reasons why Italy were burdened with critically low stamina. The first was tactical, as CT Milena Bertolini insisted on playing a dynamic 4-3-3 in which wingers and midfielders constantly dashed to open up spaces and cover for each other. The second was constitutional: dismissing contingent fitness for a moment, the Azzurre were (and are) physically quite homogeneous, with relatively small, light bodies that are not optimal for that sort of aerobic intensity.
With regards to the tactics, it's hard to really fault Bertolini. She had a squad that was more drilled than technical - more fox than lion, shall we say - and so she built her team around those strengths. Yes, in hindsight it may have been wise to think of an alternative as well, perhaps a formation to fall back on and defend a lead without expending so much energy.
And yet watching this team at their best, the way they held their own against powerhouses like Australia, Brazil and for 45' the Netherlands, one feels Bertolini's plan was validated. She gambled, and by gambling took us to the Quarter Finals, which is pretty impressive for a collective that everyone expected to crash out in the group stage.
About those Quarter Finals, they were not an especially beautiful game. The first half was scrappy and not very quick, although there was something admirable (even vaguely hypnotic) about the struggle of these athletes against an apocalyptic sun. The second half was one-sided and, for our side, rather sour.
Bertolini started off with her golden midfield trio (including Aurora Galli, as was amply predictable) but she shook up her attacking trident, with winger Valentina Bergamaschi coming on for trequartista-slash-striker Cristiana Girelli.
The point of the switch was presumably to provide greater coverage on the flanks, where Holland boasts two of the strongest wide players in the world (Lieke Martens and Shanice Van De Shanden). Fullbacks Elisa Bartoli and Alia Guagni also swapped flanks, suggesting Bertolini had planned carefully for this threat.
The formation itself worked, but the problem was that our ace, Barbara Bonansea, looked gassed almost from the opening whistle. Her role should have seen her rapidly widening and narrowing the team (as she had done all throughout the Group stages), but against Holland she was practically plodding. Too often she found herself too close to Valentina Giacinti in the middle when she should have been attacking the flank, or vice versa. Small wonder that she was subbed off early in the second half.
With Bonansea a shadow and Girelli on the bench, Italy lacked creativity and Valentina Giacinti was offered few chances. As the Dutch intensified their efforts in the second half, other Italians also started running out of breath, and soon it was over.
Even after the Dutch scored the first goal and the game opened up a little, our midfielders could not execute proper counters, as they took too long to reorganise their lines. The second Oranje goal finally shattered a defence which until that day had seemed nigh-on unbreakable.
Italy's World Cup closes on a shot of the Azzurre's tearful faces, but in France, much has already been won. The team exceeded expectations and magnetised incredible levels of attention, very possibly injecting new lifeblood into Women's Serie A.
The fact that so many of the players are from Juventus should make us think, as it shows how far the investment of a single football giant can go. Things can only get better as the other Italian clubs catch up, but after seeing what the Azzurre can do with barely two years of proper institutional backing, it'll be exciting to see what this young and talented squad can become in 2023.
Best of all, for a team so green Italy seem to possess an innate tactical ability, which perhaps is a true heritage that comes with being Italian - something about territory and culture, although they will have to compound that with greater physical diversity. The future of the sport (though so many keep digging their heels) lies in teams that can maximise athletic versatility by combining a variety of physical constitutions.
Lacking this very quality ended up costing the Azzurre in this tournament, as some pure runners might have given Bertolini's girls greater endurance, but hopefully such players will emerge as the league keeps developing and the pool of talent becomes wider. The key word there is 'hopefully': I for one have never experienced a defeat that felt so full of promise.
Get on board, or be old: the next great moment of Italian football is what we saw in France. And as for our Cinderellas in studded shoes, our princesses from the street, let us be thankful to them for gifting us the fairy tale of a World Cup. It had been so long since the last one (or the last good one), we were growing old and cynical in the waiting.
You were called upon to deliver and you honoured the shirt you wear, and that is everything that I expect from my Azzurre. Brave ragazze, as we say back home, and thank you.
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