The countdown is on until the Westfield Matildas’ first game at the FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019™.
And Alen Stajcic’s side opens their campaign in June with a crucial clash against the improving European force in Italy.
The opening game of a tournament is always so important and La Squadra Azzurra – as the Italians are known – will represent a big challenge for the Westfield Matildas.
Italy’s national team has been one of the big improvers in Europe over the last couple of years as the revamped Serie A competition has improved in quality.
They boast some impressive young talent with a good mix of experience as well, ensuring they’ll be well-prepared when they get to France.
The Westfield Matildas take on Italy on June 9 at 9pm (AEST) at the Stade De Hainaut in Valenciennes in the first Group C fixture.
This will be Italy’s first appearance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 20 years.
They are back on the world stage for the first time since 1999, one of two appearances at women’s international football’s biggest event.
Their best result at a FIFA Women’s World Cup came in their first appearance in 1991 when they made the quarter-finals.
The Westfield Matildas have played La Squadra Azzurra on eight occasions dating back to 2001.
And there’s nothing separating the two nations, with three wins apiece as well as two draws.
Italy, currently ranked 16th in the world, have played nine matches in 2018 and only suffered defeat on two occasions.
They began the year with a strong result against powerhouses and World Cup hosts France, securing a 1-1 draw in Marseille in January.
From there they went on to easily book their spot at next year’s tournament by winning their first seven games in qualifying to top the European Group 6.
They did lose the final of the Cyprus Cup to Spain in March, but their only other defeat was against Belgium in their final match of qualifying, although that clash came after they had already secured their ticket to France.
Three-time Serie A Women winner Cristiana Girelli boasts a near one-in-two record for the national team, and has been the fulcrum of Italy’s attacking play in recent times.
The 28-year-old is at the peak of her powers having earned a big move to Juventus at the beginning of the 2018/19 campaign.
She’s scored a hatful of crucial goals throughout qualifying, including a goal against France in January and a strike against Portugal in June that proved to be a telling effort in securing their FIFA Women’s World Cup ticket.
Experienced defensive heads Elise Bartoli and Sara Gana will carry much of Italy’s hopes of navigating out of the group, while the blend of experience and youth offered by Alice Parisi and Manuela Giugliano offer a strong midfield base.
There’s also classy winger Barbera Bonansea, who is a tricky customer and hard to contain down her flank, having developed her game impressively with Juventus.
Milena Bertolini took charge of the national team in 2017 after 15 years coaching in the Italian competition at Verona, Reggiana and Brescia.
The 52-year-old, who won the Serie A twice as a player, has helped transform the Italians into a well-structured and disciplined outfit.
A defender in her playing days, Bertolini has used all her experience in that department to tighten up Italy’s defence and they conceded just four goals in eight matches in qualifying.
She has expressed a desire to become the first women to one day coach in the men’s Serie A.