By JOSEPH WILSON
The Associated Press
MONTPELLIER, France — Led by the vibrant play of forward Barbara Bonansea, Italy has proven to be one of the revelations of the Women’s World Cup in its return to the tournament after a 20-year absence.
Bonansea’s team surpassed expectations by winning its group over Marta’s Brazil and Sam Kerr’s Australia.
Now it will face China on Tuesday in Montpellier in a round of 16 match that promises to be a classic clash of an up-tempo attack against a stingy, no-frills defense.
Italy was the fourth-highest scoring team in the field of 24 through the group phase with seven goals.
China only managed one goal through three matches, but still went through to the knockout round as one of the top third-place teams.
“We try to harmonize every aspect, whether it is in defense or building our attacks. We try to be creative, and I think that is a unique feature of Italian soccer,” coach Milena Bertolini said through a translator Monday.
“We are going to play as we always have and we will try to carry out a good match showing our quality style of game playing.”
With her speed and ability to score from distance, Bonansea has led Italy’s three-prong attack from its left flank. The 28-year-old Juventus forward, who can also play in midfield, has scored 21 goals in 62 appearances for Le Azzurre.
Bonansea scored twice in Italy’s 2-1 win over Australia to start the tournament. First she cancelled out Kerr’s opener before she grabbed the winner in stoppage time.
Bonansea also earned the penalty that put Cristiana Girelli on her way to a hat trick in a 5-0 dismantling of Jamaica in the second match, sealing Italy’s place in the round of 16.
She also had two good scoring chances against Brazil, before Marta converted a penalty to deal the Italians a 1-0 loss that didn’t stop them from finishing the group in first place.
Despite struggling on offense, where it has yet to get a boost from Paris Saint-Germain forward Wang Shuang, China has deployed a disciplined defense anchored by goalkeeper Peng Shimeng.
Peng has impressed at age 21 in her first major competition by only conceding one goal. She made several saves to help China hang on to a scoreless draw against Spain in the final group match.
Prior to that, China made second-ranked Germany work hard to eke out a 1-0 win in their opener. China got its sole goal from Yi Ling to beat South Africa 1-0.
“Over the last three games, China went through a difficult process, from the attacking third I think we could have done a better job,” coach Jia Xiuquan said through a translator. “But I believe as we adjust to the games I am confident that the attacking third will be better and then we can improve our balance.”
∫ NETHERLANDS-JAPAN: The Netherlands will play Japan in Rennes in a rematch of their round of 16 meeting four years ago, when the Japanese won 2-1 en route to reaching the final. The Dutch won Group E with three victories, while Japan finished Group D in second place.
“We know our opponent well,” said Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman. “Four years ago they played the final. They are very dynamic, very skilled and very flexible, but we have our skills as well and have developed over the past four years.”
∫ RECAPPING MONDAY: The United States needed two penalties to squeak past a surprisingly tough Spain 2-1. Megan Rapinoe converted both spot kicks to set up a quarterfinal against host France. Sweden also advanced to the final eight after Stina Blackstenius scored early in the second half to earn a 1-0 victory over Canada. Sweden gets Germany next.