Italy's women team has ridden an emotional roller-coaster in recent months. The south Europeans cruised undefeated through the group phase of qualifying for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™, but fell to France by a whisker at the preliminary play-off stage.
Since then, victories over Ukraine and Switzerland in an elimination round handed them another chance at booking a place in Germany. However, their initial elation at clutching the final straw will surely have been tempered once it became clear that their path to the finals would be blocked by the USA, currently the top side in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking.
"This play-off is where we have to harvest the fruits of our labours,” Italy coach Pietro Ghedin said defiantly, as the south Europeans dream of a first appearance at the finals since 1999. Le Azzurre go into this Saturday’s first leg on home soil in Padova seeking nothing less than a victory over the two-time world champions and reigning Olympic gold medallists, in order to give themselves a realistic chance in the return a week later in Bridgeview on the outskirts of Chicago.
The USA start as overwhelming favourites and certainly have more to lose, as they have never missed out on the FIFA Women’s World Cup finals before, and will surely relish the chance to show their true colours when the pressure is on. In the wake of their shock 2-1 semi-final defeat to Mexico in the qualifying tournament for the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone, coach Pia Sundhage and her star ensemble recovered to beat Costa Rica 3-0 in the third-place play-off, earning the right to represent CONCACAF against the team who finished fifth in UEFA qualifying.
"It was a humbling experience, it’s an experience that hopefully is a wake-up call for everybody, and we’re going to work our tails off to make sure it never happens again," declared star striker Abby Wambach. "We got our second chance," added captain Christie Rampone. "Anyone can break one pencil, but no one can break a whole stack."
However, there is no danger of the No1 nation underestimating the scale of the task. Defender Ali Krieger, who plays for FFC Frankfurt in the German Women’s Bundesliga, issued a warning to her team-mates. "It’ll be very tough. The atmosphere is very different. Football is their number one sport. They want to go to the World Cup as well, but it’s a great opportunity for us. If you want to be the best, you’ve got the beat the best, and this is just our next step going forward."
As so often in the past, the USA will be looking for leadership and inspiration from the prolific Wambach, who now has 117 goals in 147 internationals. The 30-year-old is upbeat about her team’s chances of registering a ninth win in 14 meetings with the Italians when the sides cross swords in Padova: "I have no doubt that this team is capable of going to Italy and giving a great performance."
Nevertheless, history for once does not favour the north Americans, as they have lost on all four previous visits to Italy. We will find out on Saturday whether history can be rewritten.