MANCHESTER, England — After their heavy defeat to France on Sunday, Italy manager Milena Bertolini asked her squad to search for the positives to take from the loss, yet if the result of that was an improved performance, it had been held up somewhere between Rotherham and Manchester. Opting to make five changes from her starting XI from four days prior, the coach kept much of the defence that had struggled so deeply against France and refreshed her midfield and attack as they took on Iceland on Thursday.
If the plan was to ease into the game and settle any lingering nerves left over from their French drubbing, it was thrown out the window when Karolina Lea Vilhjalmsdottir thundered a volley into Laura Giuliani’s top corner in the third minute. It was a goal that took the tournament tally to four for goals scored in the third minute or earlier, doubling the metric from the previous editions, a reminder for all teams in England that you had to be on your toes from the off with the pace of the game always improving.
For Italy, there wasn’t to be a sudden torrent of goals from Iceland as there was from France, but Le Azzurre spent most of the first half chasing, always out-muscled and outclassed by their Nordic opposition.
After the match, Bertolini spoke of what the team had endured this month. “This is a European Championships of great suffering for us and this was a very tough game and after a very bad defeat against France,” she said. “Physiologically this hit us very badly.”
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That fragility was there for all to be seen across the pitch; the midfield could offer little against the physically opposing Iceland side that looked primed for a second; the choice of Martina Rosucci and Flaminia Simonetti, both of whom had been subbed on during the last game, was highly questionable; the team left flat and uninspired through the middle. Likewise, the defence that was so unable to deal with the basics against a rampant France side continued to labour in Manchester, although managed to avoid any disasters.
With the first half played at an achingly slow pace by the Italians, Le Azzurre just managing just 0.34 passes per second — the second-fewest at the Euros — Bertolini’s side looked to be heading home early. The dark horses still stuck in the stables long after the race had begun. Going to her bench at the break, the 56-year-old coach made the first of a hat trick of staggered substitutions, bringing Barbara Bonansea back into the team.
Going on to win player of the match for her second-half input, Bonansea noted that the team “started a little scared” but that they “managed to hold our heads high.”
The initial change did very little, but before the game could resettle, Cristiana Girelli was introduced from the bench to give the team even more attacking impetus. If the goal had been to disrupt the flow and not let Iceland get used to the team they were facing, it was a success, with captain Sara Gama the third player to make way before the hour.
What at first looked like refreshing and renewing proved to be resilience as the play became more stretched and the team in blue found more joy in the first third. It was kitchen-sink stuff from the coach that left her team dangerously exposed every time they got forward, but through a combination of tactics, changes and the uncertainty, Italy found their equaliser.
Seconds after nearly conceding at an Icelandic free kick, Le Azzurre broke forward and, thanks to some diligent work from Bonansea, carved open the Nordic defence with Valentina Bergamaschi left free to race onto the ball and slam it into the same goal Vilhjalmsdottir had an hour previously. It secured a valiant 1-1 draw.
As Bertolini said after the match, “This match probably gave [the team] a boost of confidence. Expectation is a very difficult killer inside of us, we are not used to expectation so we are probably suffering with it.”
There was little love lost between the two teams who’d been going into each challenge with a full-blooded intensity you’d expect from the dying seconds of a final, not the full 90 minutes of a group-stage game. The challenges were strong but fair as both sides desperately searched for a winner that would give them some kind of safety net going into their final group games, but there wasn’t to be a winner in Manchester.
Speaking to ESPN after the draw, Icelandic defender Glodis Perla Viggosdottir aired her frustrations. “We feel very comfortable defending low, but then they catch us off balance, they get behind us and score and after that I think it’s just two teams that need to win and both of us are trying to go forward with a lot of players and trying to score.”
Having been on top for two-thirds of the match, Iceland might have been relieved to get to the whistle with a point to show for their hard work, the chances raining in for Italy as the match drew to its conclusion but La Azzurre unable to capitalise on a second goal from their 22 efforts. Knowing they could have taken more, there was palpable frustration from the Italian players after the match.
“We didn’t manage to score our goals but we had grit,” Bonansea said. “I’m happy for our determination and now we have to focus on Belgium.”
Playing the first match of the day Monday, neither Italy nor Belgium would be granted too much of a rest, the path ahead of both is one that could twist and turn based on the result of the later match. For Italy, they will be favourites against group underlings Belgium, whereas Iceland will be coming up against the same France team who hit Italy for five first-half goals in their first group game. Worse still for Iceland, only two teams in Euros history have progressed from the group stage after drawing their first two games, and none have in the past three editions.
Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom for Iceland who, had they taken their chances, could have already wrapped up six points, such was the Nordic nation’s superiority over Belgium in their first group game. They had their chances to make their attacking dominance count against Italy on Thursday, too, but the team with an expected goals (xG) of 4.74 so far this Euros — the third-highest of any nation at the tournament — has just two goals to show for it.
Frustration justified on both sides of the pitch, then.
Having started their 2017 Euros off with a game against France and a controversial penalty decision, Iceland fell from one piece of bad luck to the other in the Netherlands, ultimately getting knocked out of the group stage with zero points. However, this time they will be squaring off with Les Bleues last after two strong defensive performances having shown a good team spirit throughout, and Viggosdottir was keen to make the case for the her nation to progress to the knockout rounds.
“The biggest thing we take from this is we haven’t lost yet, we haven’t lost a game and if we can keep a zero against France … we are the team that can always score, we’re really good at set pieces and we have our counterattacks,” she said. “I think, the team we have now, on a good day, we can beat France.”
Group D is finely poised after the draw in Manchester, and neither Italy nor Iceland in or out of the competition quite yet.
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