A la carta, Italy produced a thoroughly professional second half performance to defeat the United States 3-1 in Enschede on Tuesday. A Hunter Freeman penalty behind at the break, another strike by Graziano Pelle sandwiched between two own goals from Patrick Ianni and Sacha Kljestan sent the Azzurri flying into the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005.
"It was an emotional game," Italy's coach Paolo Berrettini told reports later. "Both teams attacked endlessly. In the first half they held sway but we changed things round and we had the mental strength to come out on top."
U.S. coach Sigi Schmid opted to play the fit again Jonathan Spector in place of Nathan Sturgis at the back, but, just four minutes in, the Manchester United defender almost gifted the Italians a goal. Dallying on the ball, he was robbed by Marino Defendi. The Atalanta player fed Simone Bentivoglio but his crisp, low drive was brilliantly turned aside by Quentin Westberg.
Spector's nervousness seemed to be contagious as the Americans started slowly. He quickly pulled himself together though, playing in Sammy Ochoa but the striker's second right-wing cross in as many minutes failed to find a target.
Graziano Pelle, whose two goals against Canada helped the Azzurri get to the last 16, was already looking menacing, using his height to good effect. On 13 minutes, he twisted and turned before sending a curling 20-yarder inches over.
The Unites States were getting plenty of joy of their own down the Italian left. Ochoa shot at Emiliano Viviano (15), a minute before Marvell Wynne foraged forward from his right-back position, leaving two men in his wake. Again though the centre failed to fall kindly in the area.
Back at the other end, Pelle was winning everything in the air. On 20 minutes, he turned Spector, forcing Westberg into a neat save. Raffaele De Martino struck a 25-yarder inches over two minutes later from the Catania forward's knock down, and Pelle, drifting between defenders, should have done better with another effort (30) as Italy pressed.
Eddie Gaven was having a quiet game but he burst into action in the 33rd minute. After playing a well crafted one-two with Chad Barrett, he sent a spinning shot from the edge of the box that seemed destined for the top corner. Viviano, Italy's captain, needed all his 1.95 metres to pull off a top drawer save.
Three minutes before half time and the USA were ahead. Freddy Adu, who was brought down inside the box, had his first effort brilliantly beaten away. The referee ordered a retake and Adu, who had already seen one penalty saved in the tournament, gave way to Hunter Freeman, who calmly tucked the spot kick home (1:0, '43).
"It was my decision," Schmid admitted when asked who had ordered Freeman to take the second penalty. "I had confidence in Freddy but after he missed the first I wanted the change."
Barrett almost doubled the lead seconds later but, alone on goal, his shot was smothered.
It was a subdued start to the second half, but, out of nowhere, Italy equalised. Daniele Galloppa, 25 yards out, tried his luck and taking a wicked deflection, his shot looped over Westberg and into the net (1:1, '54)
The Blues now grew in confidence. Pelle turned Wynne on the edge of the box and this time he made no mistake firing, left footed, into the top corner (1:2, '62).
Gaven was inches wide with a shot from distance but Italy made sure with a third three minutes later. Bentivoglio beat Patrick Ianni and his innocuous cross was turned into his own net by substitute Sacha Kljestan (1:3, '74).
There were chances at both ends after that as the Americans threw everything into attack, but it was the Europeans who embraced with the broadest smiles at the final whistle.
"We had enough chances to win but if you don't take them that's the price you pay," said Schmid, clearly disappointed. "We were not mentally strong enough. Some players went missing today. Italy were physical but Freddy didn't show up. He needs to step up that side of his game."
A moved Berrettini praised his team's fighting spirit. "We are getting better," he said. "Our players are on the verge of history."