The USA and Italy cross swords in the first Round of Sixteen encounter at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 in Enschede on Tuesday at 5.30 pm CET. A few years ago, commentators would have been rolling out the 'David v Goliath' clichés ahead of the fixture, but as things stand now, the match promises to be a tense, even affair.
The US have proved a real surprise package by topping an illustrious Group D, leaving Argentina, Germany and Egypt trailing in their wake. By contrast, the Italians scraped through after losing their first two matches against Columbia and Syria, before defeating Canada to squeeze into the last sixteen.
However, US coach Sigi Schmid is far too canny to believe the Italians have suddenly forgotten how to play football.
"They've lost twice, but that means nothing. You only have to think back to the 1982 World Cup. They drew three first round matches on the trot, but then Paolo Rossi found his range and they ended up world champions," Schmid reminded FIFA.com.
The coach confessed to enormous respect for his next opponents: "Even on a bad day, Italian teams can cause you a lot of trouble.
"The Italian game deservedly enjoys an excellent reputation. You only have to think of clubs such as AC Milan, Inter or Juventus, or players such as Shevchenko, Kaka and Totti. They feature big name players, the league is packed with flair and is highly respected."
But for all that, the mood in the American camp remains optimistic.
"I've often said we have fewer problems against strong teams such as Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany than against the smaller nations. We concentrate much harder against the bigger teams and we push ourselves to the limit," Schmid analysed.
The boss rested a number of regulars for the final group match against Egypt, with an eye on his starlets conserving peak fitness for the Italy clash. "The reserves of energy we've built up could yet be vital as the tournament goes on. And we didn't want the risk of more yellow cards," the German-born coach explained.
The US will be looking to maintain a flawless defensive record: they have yet to concede in three games to date. Manchester United's Jonathan Spector is set to return after an injury sustained in the opening match.
"The Italians are a strong defensive outfit, so it'll be vital to score the opening goal. Nonetheless, in pre-tournament meetings with Argentina and Canada, we proved we're capable of coming back from a goal down," the boss remarked, insisting he had never contemplated a preferred opponent for the last sixteen. "It doesn't matter whether you play against a group winner or a team which finished third. Everyone is in with a chance now."
One possible advantage could be the absence of pressure on his men. "We still consider ourselves underdogs. We know we have to work hard to be successful, and we'll fail if we don't play as a unit," he added.
Italians approach knock-out round in relaxed mood
The Italian squad was a model of levity just 24 hours before the match. Making their first visit to the stadium in Enschede, very few players bothered checking out the playing surface. Most were concerned to don sunglasses and snap away with their mobile phones, busily collecting pictures to send back home. A few laughed and joked on the touchline, while some sought refuge from the blazing summer sun under a convenient umbrella.
The mood is upbeat as the 4-1 success against Canada helped blow away the gloom which had settled after the double opening defeat. No previous Italian U-20 team had scored four goals in a single match at a FIFA World Youth Championship - and Italy have never lost to a CONCACAF team at the tournament, having drawn with the Canadians in 1987 before the victory in the current competition.
Italy boss Paolo Berrettini is expecting a challenging encounter. "It's tough to play against the USA, as far as I can judge from my personal experience. They've made huge progress both in the tactical and technical areas. They're especially strong in midfield. But I'd still have picked the USA as our next opponents if I'd been offered the choice."
Berrettini noted the draining physical nature of the tournament so far: "We needed a lot of energy to get through the group stage, so it won't be at all easy now."
He identified two factors which could prove decisive against the Americans: "We need strong nerves and peak fitness. But as I said, I'm expecting an immensely difficult game. We need to show the same team spirit and determination we had against Canada."