• Mauro Coppolaro showing promise at the heart of Italy's defence
  • Featured in Italy’s 2016 UEFA European Under-19 Championship final loss to France
  • Centre-half out for revenge when the two sides meet in the last 16 at Korea Republic 2017

Mention La Squadra Azzurra to France fans and one of the first things that will spring to mind for them is Les Bleus’ golden-goal defeat of the Italians in the UEFA EURO 2000 final. Ask Italy fans about the French, however, and they will tell you that they got the better of them in the FIFA World Cup™ Final in Germany in July 2006.

The two nations fought it out for another trophy a year ago, in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship, with France coming out on top on that occasion. That competition saw both nations qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017, where they are set to meet once again, this time in the Round of 16 on Thursday in a game that will feel like a final for both sides.

“This is our chance to put that final defeat behind us once and for all,” said Italy No6 Mauro Coppolaro. “It’s an opportunity for revenge and the last 16 of a World Cup. What more motivation could we need? We’re going to make up for it.

“France-Italy matches are always special too. As an Italian, the 2006 match is obviously one of my first great memories. These games are part of football folklore. It’s a derby and I hope things go our way tomorrow.”

While only a goal separated the teams in previous final meetings, last year’s European Under-19 Championship saw the French put four past the Italians without reply. For a footballing nation that prides itself on its defensive strengths, missing out on a trophy by that kind of scoreline is hard to take.

“Italy is a benchmark when it comes to defending and we didn’t do justice to our reputation that day,” said Coppolaro. “There are no excuses, though. That’s just the way the match turned out. They scored early and that forced us to go and chase the game.”

Born to defend
Solidly built and 6’2 (1.89m) tall, Coppolaro is a tough adversary in one-on-one situations and a skilled distributor of the ball. An archetypal Italian defender, he is the cornerstone of the Azzurrini defence and played in all three of his side’s matches in the group phase, which they began with a defeat to Uruguay, before beating South Africa 2-0 and drawing 2-2 with Japan to advance.

“We did our best, and it was enough for us to take our place in the second round” said the centre-half. “My feeling is that we fought pretty hard.”

As he went on to explain, fighting hard is something that comes naturally to Coppolaro, who is on Udinese’s books but spent last season on loan with Serie B side Latina: “I like a battle. That’s what my position is all about. I’ve played in defence ever since I was little and I feel as if I was born a defender. I don’t know how to do anything else. It’s natural and I like it. I get a real kick out of battling with forwards.”

That is just as well, given that he will be coming up against the formidable Jean-Kevin Augustin at the Cheonan Sports Complex on Thursday. The scorer of three goals at Korea Republic 2017 so far and the leading marksman at the 2016 European Under-19 Championship with six goals, the Paris Saint-Germain man outpaced Coppolaro to score the opening goal in last year’s continental final. If the cyclical nature of the rivalry is anything to go by, however, it could be the turn of Italy and their imposing central defender to shine on Thursday.