When the whistle sounds on Wednesday afternoon in Kaduna's Ahmadu Bello Stadium for the second-round clash between Italy and USA, it could well become a battle of efficiency. The Southern Europeans are perhaps slight favourites heading into the tie, but the USA youngsters have added real quality to their familiar athleticism and strength, and will fancy their chances here.
Neither the Azzurrini nor the Stars and Stripes were at their best in their first round games at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, yet both managed to strike at key moments to claim the requisite points. Italy needed a stroke of genius from Federico Carraro against Algeria and two goals in five minutes against Korea Republic to secure their victories, while the United States had to make do with 1-0 wins against Malawi and United Arab Emirates despite dominating both games. What is clear is that the Wilmer Cabrera's side will need to make better use of their chances against the skilful Europeans if they are to prolong their interest in the competition. Italian goalkeeper Mattia Perin is suffering from a cut in his foot and will be sidelined in the match against the USA. Perin will most likely be replaced by Franceso Bardi who has already played one match for Perin at this year's European U-17 Championships.
This is the first time since 1987 that Italy have reached the knockout phase of the FIFA U-17 World Cup and their promising start in Nigeria has whetted their appetite for more. The Americans can lay claim to being the only country to have competed at every FIFA U-17 World Cup so far, and they will be keen to improve on their performance at Korea 2007, where they were edged out 2-1 by Germany in the Round of 16. That said, the North Americans would do well not to underestimate their opponents' desire for revenge, the Azzurrini having been on the receiving end of a painful 3-1 defeat against USA at the group stage of Peru 2005.
3 - Three Italian stars who won the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany also played with the Azzurrini in a FIFA U-17 World Cup: Alessandro Del Piero (1991), Gianluigi Buffon and Francesco Totti (both 1993).
"We've got confidence in our ability and have a great team that's grown very close. We've been dreaming of winning this World Cup from the moment we qualified."
Federico Carraro, Italy midfielder
"We can't change our style to suit whoever we face on the day. The key is to just play our game."
Wilmer Cabrera, USA coach