By Pete Sanderson at Deepdale
France began their UEFA European Women's Championship campaign in style, sweeping aside Italy with three first-half goals in a one-sided encounter in Preston.
Hoda Lattaf set the ball rolling, steering home Sandrine Soubeyrand's defence-splitting pass before two typically predatory strikes from Marinette Pichon put the result beyond doubt. Sara Di Filippo pulled a goal back in the dying moments of the game but the win left Les Bleues on top of Group B above Germany who defeated Norway 1-0.
French coach Elisabeth Loisel had the luxury of selecting from a full squad for their opening game, which ensured the lively Deepdale crowd had the opportunity to witness Pichon showcasing her sumptuous skills. There was good news too from the Italian camp where Patrizia Panico, the top scorer in their qualifying campaign, passed a late fitness test and spearheaded Carolina Morace's attack alongside Ilaria Pasqui, with Elisa Camporese lurking dangerously in the hole.
It was Italy who started the brighter of the two sides, the quick feet of Panico bamboozling the French defence before she sent Pasqui clear with a sublime ball. With only Sarah Bouhaddi to beat, however, Pasqui drilled her shot straight at the goalkeeper. How Pasqui would grow to rue that miss.
As the half developed, France began to exude a touch more menace and soon made the vital breakthrough. Soubeyrand, whose craft and ingenuity was causing Italy problems aplenty, sent an exquisite pass over two defenders and Lattaf's finish was every bit as impressive as she lofted the ball over the stranded Brunozzi to give France the lead.
The French were now attacking with purpose, guiding the ball forward through the clever feet of Soubeyrand, always looking for the sweeping runs of Pichon or little darts of Lattaf. Morace did her best to tighten the midfield but her instructions from the sidelines could do little to prevent the French doubling their advantage.
This time it was Stéphanie Mugneret-Béghé who began the move, skipping down the right before sending a pinpoint cross to the feet of Lattaf. After having her initial shot cleared off the line by Elisabetta Tona, Lattaf's second effort came back off the bar before eventually falling to Pichon to stroke the ball into the net.
The greater threat continued to come from Les Bleues and they soon compounded Morace's woes with a killer third. Soubeyrand's speculative effort from 20 metres crashed against the bar but, once again, Pichon showed her predatory instincts by slotting in the rebound.
Glimpse of goal
The Italians did have chances to reduce the arrears, Tatiana Zorri and Panico missing two great efforts, while at the other end Soubeyrand again hit the bar. Italy finally broke the French resistance with a late effort from Di Filippo, but it was a case of too little too late and they have a big test against the Germans on Thursday here, while France meet Norway in Warrington.