1994 World Cup finalists Italy began their campaign with a fixture against Russia in Group C. Italy finished second to Croatia in qualifying group 4, but secured their place in the tournament as the highest seeded runner up.
The Italians finished qualifying in good form, drawing 1-1 with 10 men in Croatia after goalkeeper Luca Bucci was sent off, then romping to comfortable home wins against Ukraine and Lithuania. Parma striker Gianfranco Zola scored a hat trick against Lithuania and finished the qualifying campaign with 7 goals.
Russia qualified by winning group 8, finishing three points ahead of a Scotland team who they battled to draws with home and away. Foggia striker Igor Kolyvanov led the scoring in the qualifying campaign with 5 goals.
Italy lined up in a 4-4-2 with captain Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta marshalling the backline. Juventus veteran Angelo Di Livio featured in midfield with a strike partnership of Pierluigi Casiraghi and Zola.
The 4-4-2 system was mirrored by Russia, and the back line was marshalled by captain Victor Onopko. Star Everton winger Andrei Kanchelskis lined up wide right with Kolyanov partnered by Vladislav Radimov up front.
Russia saw most of the ball in the opening phase of the game, statistics 30 minutes into the game showed Russia to have had 61% of the ball. Despite this, a lively Italian team did show flashes of real technical quality when they did have the ball. The ability of the Italians to effectively use what ball they did have, showed through in them having a 4-1 advantage of shots on target during this phase of play.
As with many Italian teams over the years, it was their defence and organization that stood out for long periods of the game. Casiraghi and Zola worked hard to press from the front, and that pressure played a part in the opening goal in the 5th minute. Casiraghi bore down on Russian goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov hurrying a clearance, Di Livio masterfully redirected the clearance with a one touch pass out of the air which Casiraghi finished well from.
Russia carved out an equalizer in the 21st minute of an entertaining game when Ilya Tsymbalar strode forward to fire low past the right hand of Italian goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi. Captain Onopko found himself on the ball high up the field and picked out Valeri Karpin, who turned and played a pass that was deflected into the path of Spartak Moscow midfielder Tsymbalar to do the rest.
It was fitting that the impressive Onopko played a part in the buildup to the goal, his ability to advance in possession and pick out quality passes shone throughout the game and gave Italy problems on a consistent basis.
As the half wore on, an interesting tactical battle played out with Russia starting to look their best as the half ended. The high pressure system of the Italians saw left back Maldini and Roberto Mussi press in high areas, freeing up wide midfielders Di Livio and Alessandro Del Piero to close the Russian fullbacks. Behind this, the remaining Italian defenders slid over to cover for the high fullback. At times this saw Italy win the ball, and at times left pockets of space for the Russian wingers to find 1 v 1 situations or space out in the channels.
The impressive Italian fullback duo also contributed on the attacking end throughout the game, getting forward to great effect and providing width to the attack.
When all was said and done, Maldini would have played a pivotal role in the Italians collecting all three points in this game. In addition to his contributions highlighted above, he was involved in a personal battle with Kanchelskis on the flank. This was a true heavyweight clash between two bona fide world stars in their respective positions. Kanchelskis managed to find space and trouble Maldini, but the legendary fullback keeping him off the scoresheet was one of the pivotal elements of the game.
After the intermission Del Piero was withdrawn and replaced by the more experienced Roberto Donadoni, a veteran of the 1994 World Cup Final run. Italy started the second half stronger and retook the lead with a quality goal 7 minutes after the interval. Good work from Zola turned the ball over, and right back Mussi passed to Juventus playmaker Di Livio. A sideways pass found Zola who played a quality one touch through ball into the path of Casiraghi to fire home the decisive strike. The athleticism, energy and work rate of Casiraghi was a problem the Russinas failed to solve throughout the game.
Italy regained the upper hand in the closing stages, and closed out a valuable 2-1 victory. A very well organized back line playing a part, and included a well worked offside trap, that saw Russia be whistled offsides 12 times to Italy’s 1.
POST GAME FALLOUT
Italy impressed in their opening game, and would be going into their second game against a Czech Republic team that was thoroughly second best in a 2-0 defeat to Germany on the when opening group play. A scheduling quirk would mean the Czech’s had two extra days to recover from their opener than Italy would have. Two goal Casiraghi and Zola looked a dangerous pairing, and the Italian fullbacks would be a tough matchup for Czech wingbacks Pavel Nedved and Radoslav Latal.
Russia would have been disappointed to leave with no points, and faced a daunting second game against a powerful German side who looked impressive in a group opening 2-0 win. German coach Berti Vogts would also have talismanic striker Jurgen Klinsmann available after missing the first game through suspension. Andrei Kanchelskis showed himself to be a dangerous force, and would be expected to provide GErman wing back Ziege with a tough day on the defensive end.
5’ ITA Pierluigi Casiraghi (Angelo Di Livio) 1-0
21’ RUS Ilya Tsymbalar (Valeri Karpin) 1-1
52’ ITA Pierluigi Casiraghi (Gianfranco Zola) 2-1
MAN OF THE MATCH
CF Pierluigi Casiraghi (Italy) – A massive physical presence on both the attacking and defensive ends for the Azzuri. Casiraghi led the press from the front, and his energetic performance was rewarded with two goals.
3: CF Pierluigi Casiraghi – Man of the Match
2: LD Paolo Maldini – Tasked with defending Russia’s most potent threat in right winger Kanchelskis, and contributed consistently as an overlapping fullback in attack. Impressive display from the AC Milan legend.
1: RM Angelo Di Livio – Produced a moment of brilliance to take a clearance out of the air and turn it into a cushioned through ball for Casiraghi’s opener. Quick and clever on the ball, played a big role all game in possession.
3: RM Andrei Kanchelskis – His speed and direct dribbling was Russia’s primary attacking outlet throughout the game. Played well in a tough matchup individually against Maldini.
2: CD Victor Onopko – Showed some real quality on the ball and played a part in duildup to opening goal on one of his foray’s up the field. Tough ball winner on the defensive end and persisted in a tough matchup with the powerful Casiraghi.
1: LM Ilyar Tsymbalar – Worked hard on both ends of the ball in the midfield area, and popped up to score Russia’s goal when latching onto a Karpin through ball.