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2019 Women's World Cup team previews: Italy

There's a lot of excitement over Italy in this year's Women's World Cup, despite such a long absence. EPA/PETER KLAUNZER

After a 20-year drought, Italy returns to the quadrennial women's world stage with building anticipation and lofty expectations. After a strong 2018 campaign, the Azzurra started 2019 focused on erasing two decades of disappointment. The fans back home are as enthusiastic as ever about the women's game, and the team hopes to harness that excitement and ride it through a tough group stage.

How they got here

The Azzurra locked their spot in France by winning seven straight games and topping their qualifying group (European zone qualifying Group 6). Having narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2015 World Cup, the Azzurra qualified for France seven months after the men's team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, giving disappointed Italian fans something to cheer about.

Strengths/Weaknesses

As the Serie A women's league has grown, with historic Italian clubs investing heavily in their women's teams, so too has the depth of the Azzurra's roster. Players now train year-round with their club teams, and have access to trainers and world-class fields. In turn, the excitement and popularity of women's soccer is surging in Italy. Want proof? A record 39,000 spectators recently packed the Juventus stadium in a Serie A match against Fiorentina.

Money Stat: 20

It has been 20 years since the Italians qualified for the Women's World Cup, and this year's appearance is only their third. Their best result came in 1991, when the Azzurra advanced to the quarterfinals in China. That year, striker Carolina Morace netted the first hat trick in Women's World Cup history in Italy's 5-0 win over Chinese Taipei.

Players to Watch

Attacker Barbara Bonansea, a star for Juventus, contributed mightily to Italy's run to the World Cup, scoring three goals and logging six assists in eight games. Striker Valentina Giacinti, 21, who plays club ball for AC Milan, is currently the top scorer in Serie A with 21 goals this season, as well as six goals for the national team.

Key game

The Italians open play against Australia on June 9, their first World Cup match in two decades. The countries don't have much of a recent history: They've played only once in the past decade -- in 2014 -- and Australia won that game 5-2. But this is a new Azzurra squad with new

Local Feedback

"Many people started to follow us and see our games and training sessions," Giacinti said of the team's post-qualifying popularity. "Training at the latest camp almost had to come second for one session because we had a lot of journalists coming to interview us and a lot of fans wanting photographs. That was very important for us and an important element for getting people interested.

"It means everything to do well, because if we do well at this World Cup, more and more people will end up watching us, and the next time we will have even more people supporting and following us," she said.

Prediction

The Azzurra will have no walkovers in a group that includes Australia and Brazil. They'll likely finish third in the bunch, but advance out of group play, which should satisfy Italian fans -- for one World Cup, anyway.