Italy have surprised many by reaching the UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship semi-finals as Group A winners with a game to spare after victories against Russia and Switzerland. In Katia Coppola they have an in-form forward, but for many the secret behind the hosts' success is the midfield pairing of Michela Franco and Claudia Mauri.
Both are disciplined members of Corrado Corradini's side and their tactical awareness allows the Azzurrine to attack with four players without ever losing their shape. They are a dynamic duo, a twin menace whose understanding of one another surprises even themselves – Mauri missed most of last season with a serious knee injury and the two only recently started to combine together in the middle of the park.
"I feel very comfortable playing beside her," Franco told UEFA.com. "It's really like we've been playing together for a long time. When one of us pushes forward, the other is always ready to cover and vice versa. We met two years ago and then she had that bad injury, but now we are back together. Everything is going very well so far."
"I had to undergo a knee injury and missed last year's finals," confirmed Mauri, from a familiar position by Franco's side. "Now everything is great. On the pitch we really complement one another. Michela has a great fighting spirit, but she's also very funny and makes us all laugh. Even when we are in trouble on the pitch, she comes out with a joke and we all relax."
Franco has a long list of nicknames. For Corradini, she is his Gennaro Gattuso, but for most she is simply Chiqui, a nod to a well-known fruit producer because, as she explains with a big laugh, "I have bananas for feet. I fight hard and never give up, but my technique is not the best. I'm honoured to be compared with Gattuso because he is a player with great heart and I try to be the same."
Neither she nor Gattuso are exactly renowned for their goalscoring prowess, but it was Franco's powerful effort, which Russia goalkeeper Margarita Shirokova could only parry, that teed up the first goal of the finals for Coppola. Mauri, meanwhile, went close from distance against Switzerland on Thursday before Coppola again found the net. "It would have been nice to score at my first European Championship," she said. "But there are still more games to come."
At least two, in fact, and minds are already drifting beyond Sunday's meeting with eliminated Belgium. "Earning six points in the first two games means we've already achieved one big objective," Franco said. "Now we can even go further, to the final maybe. For now..." Mauri completed her sentence: "We can play with much more calm and save some energy for the semi-finals." The partnership is as effective off the pitch as on it.
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