Italy 2-0 China

We're almost done with the round of 16! How's everyone feeling? Are you hydrated? Have you gotten enough rest? For our friends in France, are you dealing with the heat okay?

It's weird to think of Italy as a Cinderella story in an international soccer tournament, and yet, they kind of are here? Their winning streak continues as two quality, physical sides battled it out. Wang Shuang gave her best performance of the tournament, but it was Valentina Giacinta and Aurora Galli who got on the board for the Azzurre.

Of note, these are also two sides whose countries have begun to invest more in women's domestic football – Juventus packs stadiums in Italy; China's domestic league is growing – and if that continues, expect these two to remain contenders for a long time.

What We Learned:

  • Defensive cohesion is everything: Italy managed to get on the board twice, but it was the cohesive, powerful center back duo of Elena Linari and Sara Gama that really won this game for Italy. They worked together and helped shut down the attack, and were incredibly efficient and effective while doing so.
  • Shoot your shot: So many times during this game, we saw excellent runs from the Steel Roses and flashes of the Wang Shuang we all know and love. They connected well and kept the Italian defense on the run, with Wang serving as architect, but couldn't seem to convert on big scoring opportunities. Wang Yan's 27th minute rocket was the closest thing we had to a Steel Roses goal, and we wanted more. As Michael Scott once said, "You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. - Wayne Gretzky."

Standout Performances:

  • Elena Linari & Sara Gama: Defending against an attack that includes Li Ying and Wang Shuang is not easy, but the two CBs were up for it. The Steel Roses kept pressing forward and Li made some major well-placed runs to try and get China on the scoreboard, but every time, it felt like Linari was there to shut her down, and if she wasn't there, Gama was to back her up. The back line partnership kept a clean sheet and was instrumental in securing advancement for the Azzurre. Italian fans compared them to Cannavaro and Nesta in their prime. Cannavaro wishes.

Stray Observations:

  • Heat wave today, cold earlier in the tournament. Weather and climate are not the same thing, but the extreme weather pattern about to hit western Europe has us thinking about how the horrors of impending climate change will affect the game we love. Happy Tuesday!
  • With the exception of Wang Shuang, all of the Steel Roses currently play in the Chinese Women's Super League, a league that has seen an increase in development and investment over the past few years. Tournament stars like Cristiane and Asisat Oshoala have also had recent stints in the CWSL, increasing the league's international profile. As investment and international interest in the domestic league increase, expect even greater things from China in future tournaments.
  • As of 2018, Sara Gama has a Barbie doll in her image as part of the brand’s international "role models" anniversary campaign. Even if you feel some kind of way about Barbie, and those feelings are valid, how can you not love the idea of little kids in Italy seeing that Sara Gama Barbie on the shelf and seeing that spark of possibility in themselves?

What's Next?:

Who could have foreseen that Italy would not only win the group, but outlast its formidable group-mates, Australia and Brazil? The Azzurre face the Netherlands on Saturday in the quarterfinals.

Japan 1-2 The Netherlands

It's the final match of the Round of 16 and it almost feels like we earned it. A Lieke Martens ghost nutmeg goal to open the scoring? A fearless equalizer in the dying minutes of the first half? 45 whole minutes without being reminded that VAR exists? Two of the best supporters sections of the whole tournament? Is this Heaven, or is this Japan-Netherlands?

And then, that ending, the devastating primal scream in the 88th minute. A dubious handball call, a well-struck penalty from Martens, breaking the joyful deadlock of a gorgeous soccer match. Even a "Neeeee, neeeee" from the Dutch announcers could be heard. For how good and cohesive and aggressive the Nadeshiko were for most of the second half, it was the Oranje in the end who will advance, although let's be real, both these teams should be allowed in the quarterfinal.

What We Learned:

  • This Tournament Can Still Be Good and Fun (Until It Isn't): We’ve seen so much ugliness in this knockout stage, from questionable officiating to irresponsible commentating to whatever England-Cameroon was. But the first 88 minutes of this match, before the devastating way it ended (so fitting for the 2019 World Cup) was just so pure and thrilling and felt so evenly matched the whole way through, probably the match of the tournament so far. And that just made the ending hurt even more.

Standout Performances:

  • Yuka Momiki: Remember the name. The second-half sub rejuvenated the Nadeshiko  offense, connecting well with her teammates and giving Sari van Veenendaal her biggest test of the day. Hope to see her play a much larger role for Japan's squad in the future, and continue to fire off stunning, soaring shots that give goalkeepers headaches.
  • Lieke Martens: Who else? She needed a good day today and she had one. That backheel that somehow nutmegged a defender on its way into the goal defied physics and was off the charts on the GIFfability Scale.

Stray Observations:

  • If you don't f*** with loud, brassy horn sections at soccer matches, then I don't f*** with you.
  • A lot of folks on Twitter were waxing poetic during the match about Shanice van de Sanden's makeup and how good it looked, and I kind of love all the makeup discourse that has been happening throughout the tournament. Not the tut-tutting, "why is Franny Ordega wearing makeup" kind, to be clear, but the "Marta’s bold lip is eviscerating me from the inside" kind. In addition to being important personal statements, hair and makeup choices can just straight up be fun as hell, and I'm glad we're making space to talk about them reverently, without qualification or tut-tutting.

What's Next?:

Hello, yes, FIFA? Can we swap out one of the other teams to let both Japan and the Netherlands through? Please? The Oranje continue their run against a dominant Italy on Saturday. Now I'm off to take a sad nap.

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