There were more than a few nerves on show as the USA ran out 3-1 winners over Italy in the top-of-the-table clash in Chiclayo on 20 September. For all their physical strength, the Italians never got to grips with the USA's diminutive strikers, and despite a late rally after the sending-off of Salvatore Foti, they can have few complaints about the result. The Squadra must now see off Korea DPR to be sure of a place in the quarterfinals, while the Americans can take on Côte d'Ivoire calm in the knowledge that they are safely through.
"The guys managed to execute our plans perfectly," explained a jubilant John Hackworth after the game. "We wanted to put them under pressure right from the start and we played very well in the first half, even though we failed to score. We kept at it though, and it paid off. Then we resisted their pressure very well at the end."
With so much at stake, the tactics employed by both teams were always going to be important and it was with great interest that onlookers waited to see what changes the opposing coaches would announce. Both had been tight-lipped, but on the day John Hackworth opted to start Nik Besagno in place of Amaechi Igwe in the heart of his defence, while Francesco Rocca scrapped the three-man rearguard he had tried against the Ivorians. Reverting to a classic 4-4-2, the Italian boss dropped excellent midfielder Matteo Mandorlini to accommodate Manuel Angelucci at the back.
As a result, and no doubt due to the searing heat as well, there were no openings to speak of in the early stages of the game. The only excitement, in fact, was provided by the mascot, Vicky, who made sure to keep the crowds amused from the touch-line. On the pitch, meanwhile, jet-heeled American playmaker David Arvizu attempted to unsettle the Azzurri defence, and he came within inches of intercepting a poor back-pass before Enrico Alfonso launched himself at the ball (19').
Arvizu then found himself in an even better position moments later, after a well-worked counter-attack and a clever pass from Preston Zimmerman left him one-on-one with Alfonso. With the fans on their feet, he somehow contrived to screw his effort wide of the far post (32'). The Pateadores ace did not have to wait too long for another chance, however, and it came to him from a corner. Having beaten his marker for pace, he worked himself into space to unleash a shot, but was still unable to hit the target (39'). The USA's dominance was almost total, yet anything looked possible as long as they remained wasteful in front of goal. "Naturally, I'm a bit disappointed I didn't score," explained Arvizu. "I was unlucky, but my buddies scored and that's what's important."
To the bitter end
Fortunately for him, everything changed fairly rapidly in the second half. Kyle Nakazawa sent a dangerous, curling free-kick into the area and, amid the confusion, Ofori Sarkodie got his foot to the ball and at last buried a shot past Alfonso (0:1, 47'). Almost immediately afterwards, the Americans found the back of the net again with what looked like an action replay of their first goal, only for referee Mark Shield to blow his whistle for offside (49'). The Italians were struggling to cope with the pace and creativity of Arvizu and looked flustered up front. Their nerves began to show and the players became edgy, culminating in Salvatore Foti picking up a red card on the hour-mark following a tangle. Looking on from the bench, Rocca was furious.
The Italian coach responded by playing his joker and sent on the erratic talent of Andrea Russotto to spice things up (66'). No sooner had the Treviso-born star come on, though, than Italy went two goals down. Having already shown his skill from dead-ball situations, it was Nakazawa who did the damage with a beautifully-curled free-kick from 25 metres that finished in the top corner (0:2, 67').
Despite that further setback, the Italians were determined to struggle to the bitter end and were relieved to see Arvizu squander another gilt-edged chance on 72 minutes. For a while, that miss appeared as though it might be crucial, as Russotto pulled his team-mates back into the match with a freakish goal. His long-range free-kick from the left looked to be sailing safely over the bar, only for the wind to suddenly drag the ball into the net (1:2, 74'). The Italian players urged the crowd to get behind them and set about searching for an equaliser. Giving another glimpse of his talent, Russotto angled in a perfect cross for Marco Mancosu and although the latter lost his duel in front of goal, the ball pinged menacingly around in the penalty box before being miraculously cleared from the danger zone.
By this point, the atmosphere in the ground was electric, with Rocca jumping up and down on the side-line and the spectators cheering the Italians on. Russotto thought he had struck gold with another free-kick as the clock ticked down, but his effort only found the side-netting (82'). Soon after, it was Rocca's turn to be sent to the changing-rooms, yet just as the mood started to turn nasty, the Stars and Stripes deflated the tension with their third goal of the game. This time they had a mistake in Italy's defence to thank, and when the ball fell to Ryan Soroka, he was faced with the simple task of tapping it into an empty net (1:3, 90'). That was the icing on the cake for the Americans in a victory to savour, despite an ugly scuffle between the players after the final whistle.
There was far less elation in the Italian camp, but although Rocca was still fuming after the game, he refused to look for excuses for his side's defeat: "The Americans played better than us, especially in the first half where we were frankly awful. Their aggressive physical game made it hard for us all though the match, but nothing is lost yet. We just have to play a lot better against the Koreans."