Image Courtesy: Nike | USWNT vs Matildas | Thursday 4 April, 2019 | Photo: Rachel Bach (@bythewhiteline)

The Matildas will open their 2019 Women’s World Cup campaign against Italy this Sunday at Valenciennes’ Stade du Hainaut, in what shapes up as a fascinating encounter in Group C.

Italy come into the match as underdogs in terms of world ranking and results at recent international tournaments. However, the Azzurre are in red-hot form and will be looking to cause somewhat of an upset against their heavily-fancied opponents in the group opener.

With the experienced Laura Alleway unable to recover from injury in the days leading up to the team’s first group game, Australian manager Ante Milicic has brought in Canberra United defender and Young Matildas captain Karly Roestbakken to take her place in the squad. Fresh off the back of her third W-League season, and after impressing in the AFC U-20 World Cup qualifiers, the 18-year-old Canberra native is in line to make her senior international debut on the world’s biggest stage.

Unlike the Matildas, Italy go into the tournament with a settled lineup and without any major scares. Across their last four outings, manager Milena Bertolini has made only a handful of changes, such as keeping captain Sara Gama on the bench throughout the duration of her side’s recent friendly against the Republic of Ireland. That consistency will be key if Italy progress further into the tournament, especially with potential matches against quality teams like Norway or Spain in the knockout rounds.

Road to France

Historically one of the greatest national teams in women’s football, Italy had already won three unofficial world championships – in 1981, 1984 and 1986 – before Olympic and FIFA-sanctioned women’s tournaments even existed. Italy have also appeared at every European Championships since the inaugural edition in 1984, but have struggled to qualify for global tournaments. This year’s World Cup is the first they have featured in since 1999.

Nothing perhaps typified this string of bad luck than Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2015 tournament. They fell at the final hurdle to the Netherlands, losing 3-2 on aggregate thanks to two goals in the second leg from Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema.

In contrast to their previous efforts, Italy come into the 2019 World Cup off the back of an almost flawless qualification campaign. The Azzurre topped a group including Belgium, Portugal, Moldova and Romania, conceding just four goals on their way to a 7-1 record.

The team’s hot run of form hasn’t been limited to qualifiers either, with the team having lost only four times – against Germany, Belgium, Spain, and DPR Korea – in their last 18 games, while seeing off fellow World Cup sides Sweden, Chile and Thailand along the way.

The Venue

One of the newer stadia at this year’s Women’s World Cup, Valenciennes’ Stade du Hainaut was opened in 2011 and seats just over 25,000 spectators. Home to Valenciennes FC – currently playing in Ligue 2 – the stadium replaced the club’s former ground Stade Nungesser, which VAFC had called home since 1929.

Clad in matte-finished diamond panels of stainless steel as an homage to the town’s mining history, the stadium takes its name from the ancient county of Hainaut, which straddled the modern France-Belgium border for 950 years before being claimed wholly by France during the Revolution in 1795.

If You Know Your History…

While Italy’s most (in)famous victory against Australia may have come at the 2006 men’s World Cup in Germany, the two countries’ women’s sides are no strangers either. Although their last meeting came in 2014 – a 5-2 Matildas victory in the Cyprus Cup playoffs – it was against Italy in 2009 that both Cheryl Salisbury and Joey Peters made the final appearances of their storied national team careers; Salisbury in a 2-2 draw at the old Parramatta Stadium, and Peters in a 1-5 loss at Canberra Stadium. Only Italian captain Sara Gama and a handful of Matildas stalwarts remain from those games, the second of which remains one of Italy’s largest victories outside Europe.

Players to Watch

Sara Gama

There’s not a lot to say about the Italian captain that hasn’t already been said. Gama is a three-time Serie A winner with Brescia and Juventus, and was the captain of Italy’s U-19 European Championship-winning side of 2008. The 30-year-old has won more than 100 caps for her country over the past decade, and is genuinely one of the best ever to pull on the famous blue jersey.

Since her debut in 2006, Gama has become the anchor of the Azzurre’s defence, forming a partnership with Fiorentina wingback Alia Guagni – the only other woman in the Italy squad with more than 50 international appearances – and more recently, with Atlético Madrid centre-back Elena Linari.

As the two stoppers, Gama and her more-than-able defensive partner Linari will be tasked with halting Australia’s forward momentum through Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord, as well as navigating the Matildas’ pressing in defence. Gama’s ability to step forward and break up play outside the penalty area will go a long way towards achieving Italy’s goal of cutting off Australia’s attacking supply, and allowing her side to turn the Matildas around and play through them in transition.

Emily van Egmond

One of a swathe of hugely-experienced Matildas players, van Egmond’s workrate and passing will be key to unlocking the Italian defence. A veteran of almost 90 caps, van Egmond is one of only a few Matildas to have made their starting international debuts at a World Cup.

While her most recent season at club level for both Newcastle and Orlando hasn’t truly lived up to its potential, van Egmond will be looking to get back to the quality of performances we’re used to seeing whenever she pulls on the Matildas kit. Her corner and freekick deliveries will as always be crucial, helping to create scoring opportunities for aerial specialists Kerr, Emily Gielnik and Alanna Kennedy.

Playing as part of a midfield three, most likely with Elise Kellond-Knight and Tameka Yallop, the metronomic van Egmond will also look to draw the Italian defenders out of formation and pass through them to feed the attacking runs of players like Kerr, Gielnik and Foord, while also recycling any chances that fall around the edge of the penalty area.

Match Details

Australia vs Italy

Date: Sunday 9 June

Venue: Stade du Hainaut, Valenciennes

Kick-off: 1.00PM (local); 9.00PM (AET)

Broadcast: Live in Australia on Optus Sport and SBS