Italy ends nearly 30-year drought at World Cup, joins England in round of 16

Italy failed to qualify for last year’s Men’s World Cup in Russia, a devastating blow to a nation that lives and breathes football.

But the Italian women are doing brilliantly at this year’s Women’s World Cup in France, making history Friday by reaching the knockout phase for the first time since 1991 after Cristiana Girelli’s hat-trick inspired a 5-0 victory against Jamaica.

England also advanced, edging a determined Argentina 1-0 to move to a perfect six points.

If picking up a win against one of the favorites, Australia, in its first World Cup game wasn’t enough, Italy has already advanced from its Group C cohort, which also includes traditional powerhouse Brazil.

It follows a hugely successful qualifying campaign where, not surprisingly, the Italian defense was difficult to breach.

“Emotions I’m feeling are of joy, sheer joy,” Italy coach Milena Bertolini was quoted as saying by FIFA. “We wanted to move on in the group phase and to do this after two matches is a great satisfaction for us.

“The girls were awesome, to stay with their feet well planted on the ground considering all of the attention and coverage we’re getting back home.”

The win in Reims against the Reggae Girlz wasn’t without controversy, however.

The use of VAR, or a video assistant referee, continues to divide opinion but when it was utilized by referee Anna-Marie Keighley to check on a possible penalty, it appeared that the right outcome was reached.

READ: Japan back on track after Scotland win

Keighley initially didn’t point to the spot when Allyson Swaby made contact with Barbara Bonansea but changed her mind.

Sydney Schneider dived to her left to stop Girelli but the kick was ordered retaken after the goalkeeper was ruled to be off her line before it took place.

Replays might have justified the decision but far worse breaches of the rule are rarely called.

Second chance

Girelli took advantage of her second chance, this time going to the keeper’s right in the 12th minute.

If that was a bit of luck for Girelli, there was more to come. Girelli’s second goal in the 25th minute deflected off her thigh from a corner and in the 46th minute Schneider missed her punch and the ball found its way into the net off Girelli’s shoulder.

All that was left realistically for 53rd-ranked Jamaica was to limit the damage — and see if it could score a first-ever World Cup goal.

It almost happened in the 58th minute when Italy goalkeeper Laura Giuliani dithered with the ball at her feet. She was caught out by Jamaica’s top offensive threat, Khadija Shaw, before Italy recovered.

Seconds later, Shaw saw yellow when her right foot cruised into the mouth of Italian skipper Sara Gama on a scissor kick.

Giuliani made a fingertip save in the 68th minute.

Substitute Aurora Galli then provided Italy’s fourth goal, courtesy of a thunderous right-footed drive that Schneider got a hand to, and she completed the scoring in the 81st, sprinting to get in behind the Jamaica defense and slaloming past Schneider.

England eventually finds way past Correa

It took a while for third-ranked England to find a way past inspired goalkeeper Vanina Correa in Le Havre, which didn’t necessarily surprise Lionesses boss Phil Neville.

“I stood in the warmup and watched their keeper,” Neville said after the game. “She was unbelievable in the warmup. Normally when you are like that before the game, you’re not like that in the game. But she was incredible.”

Correa stuck out a left arm to deny Nikita Parris from the penalty spot and later in the first half used her left foot to frustrate Beth Mead.

As it did against 2015 runner-up Japan in its first match — when it collected a first ever World Cup point — Argentina sat back and defended in numbers with Correa holding firm between the posts.

And she continued to star early in the second half, keeping out Parris’ fierce drive from close range.

Her positioning was perfect to comfortably catch Jodie Taylor’s header but Euro 2017’s top scorer made England’s long awaited breakthrough in the 62nd minute following a rare Argentina attack.

England was thus able to counter and the speedy Mead engineered a perfect cross to Taylor, who tapped home. Correa this time had no chance.

It was the lone goal, a credit to an Argentina side that several years ago didn’t have a world ranking due to inactivity and was all but deserted by its national federation.

Not happy with his team’s second-half performance against Scotland last Sunday, Neville had no complaints Friday.

“I actually thought we were outstanding,” he said. “I really enjoyed the game. I enjoyed our performance. I stood here four days ago and I was slightly critical of them and that’s because of the standards we set but I’m proud of every single one of them tonight.”

England and Japan face off Wednesday to decide the Group D winner, while Argentina meets winless Scotland.