Saved by Girelli, still-experimental Italy scrape win over Argentina in Women’s World Cup opener

Cristiana Girelli saved Italy with a late winner in their Women's World Cup opener against Argentina, but it was again clear that this still-experimental Azzurre are a side in transition, we just don't know what to.

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Much was made of Giulia Dragoni‘s inclusion in Italy‘s 2023 Women’s World Cup squad, and understandably so, given her relative – or complete – inexperience at first-team level. So, when the 16-year-old was chosen from the start in the Azzurre‘s opening game against Argentina, and in the same XI as fellow teenager Chiara Beccari, eyebrows were raised.

But as positive as it is to see exciting teenagers starting at the World Cup, and as much as it suggests that Italian women’s football has a bright future, that coach Milena Bertolini handed a place in her XI to a 16-year-old who hadn’t even appeared for the Azzurre before their July 1 friendly against Morocco in Ferrara is telling.

Despite a late 1-0 win being sealed by substitute Cristiana Girelli, it became even clearer as the Azzurre opened their Women’s World Cup campaign that Bertolini doesn’t know what her Italy is, neither in shape nor personnel.

Manuela Giugliano of the Italy National Women’s Team up against Argentina at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. (@AzzurreFIGC)

Dragoni and Beccari become Italy’s youngest-ever Women’s World Cup players

While a lot of the attention was taken by Dragoni, Chiara Beccari‘s inclusion from the start against Argentina shouldn’t slip under the radar. At 18, Beccari has already shown her readiness to play at the top after an excellent season on loan at Como Women from Juventus, and she will spend the 2023/24 season out on loan again at Sassuolo.

Beccari showed flashes of what she can do but wasn’t able to be quite as involved as she might have liked. In that, though, she was far from alone. Bertolini‘s XI was hard to work out, and their system was anything but clear to read.

Arianna Caruso of the Italy National Women’s Team up against Argentina’s Estefania Banini at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. (@AzzurreFIGC)

The Azzurre spent most of the qualification campaign playing with their tried-and-trusted 4-3-3, but shifted to a back three (or five) for their warm-up game against Morocco. Then, Bertolini and the players stressed how much they had worked on that approach in the build-up, and all signs pointed towards that being the system they carried over to New Zealand. Then, Beccari was handed her first start and Dragoni came off the bench for her debut.

Just three weeks later Italy kicked off their World Cup in an unfamiliar setup. Arianna Caruso and Barbara Bonansea felt shoehorned into a position that they don’t play for Juventus, Beccari and Dragoni were thrown in at the deepest of deep ends, and Bertolini‘s bizarre blind spot to Giada Greggi – arguably her best midfielder – was exposed again. Even eventual match-winner Girelli‘s introduction in midfield, where she does not play for Juventus, suggested that Bertolini is just trying to find something that works.

A big chance almost missed, Italy a long way from the finished product

Elena Linari heads the ball for Italy Women against Argentina at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. [@AzzurreFIGC]

With Group G being the most open group at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the game between Italy and Argentina was seen beforehand as the most important game that each of the two sides would play. Sweden are expected to top the group, and both the Azzurre and the South Americans knew how valuable a win would be.

Italy were the better team, and were more deserving of the points than their South American opposition. Valentina Giacinti and Caruso both had the ball in the net in the first half, but both strikes were correctly ruled out for offside and, beyond those, it’s hard to remember a time when Italy got in behind Argentina despite the possession they boasted. The eventual winner coming from an excellent Girelli header on the end of a typically pinpoint Lisa Boattin saved Italy, but it shouldn’t disguise the reality of the situation facing the Azzurre.

This Italy are a side in transition, but at the moment it’s hard to see what exactly they’re transitioning into. The talent is there, but its use is leaving a lot to be desired and, following the disaster that was the Women’s European Championship in England a year earlier, the Azzurre are already at risk of seeing another major tournament pass by with nothing to show for it.

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