ROME, JUNE 13 -- They say it's always like this when Italy plays a World Cup game or when major club teams meet. About 45 minutes before such a game, a silence settles over the cities and towns. The night glows from television sets. In summer, windows may be opened, and, if there's a breeze, all you can hear is the rustle of curtains. Otherwise, nothing.

If the game is really big -- something bigger perhaps than the seemingly one-sided Italy-United States game here Thursday night (3 p.m. EDT) -- an Italian knows he'd better not need a fireman or a doctor. People's houses have been robbed as they've sat there watching games. But for the most part, there's no worry -- even the thieves watch the games.

Almost everyone in Italy will be watching Italy-U.S., even though the talk involves mostly the number of goals Italy will score. Postgame celebration is thought a certainty. It's just that if an Italian needs a doctor or if his house catches fire during the U.S. game, he probably will not be able to get help.

What could be the attraction to mesmerize a nation? It's this: The Italian team is so talented that Roberto Baggio, who was sold recently by Fiorentina to Juventus for a record $13 million, and Salvatore Schillaci, whose goal beat Austria Saturday night, may be unable to break into the starting lineup.

Baggio, a goal-scoring midfielder, is regarded as an artist who will play not on demand but when he is ready. He is ready, but waiting.

Schillaci is a phenomenon from Sicily. As a substitute, he took just 10 minutes to beat Austria.

But Italy's coach, Azeglio Vicini, is like a lot of American coaches in various sports. He's going to play whom he wants and no one is going to tell him differently.

"In the end," said Vicini, speaking from Italy's camp about 30 miles south of here, "all I'm interested in is to win our bracket and advance to the second round."

So Vicini declared he will start Andrea Carnevale once more over Schillaci, who was a top scorer as a second division player two seasons ago and continued his goal production this season in the first division. Fans and press are in an uproar. They love the youthful Schillaci's exuberance and call him "Toto."

There's more controversy. Gianluca Vialli, center forward and team leader, said the injured Carlo Ancelotti should be in uniform and have a seat on the bench as a substitute, even if he can't play. "He is important to the team," Vialli told reporters, "because he helps in warm-up and is precious in the tactical decisions before games."

The notion -- or the mention -- that Italy won't even need all healthy substitutes to beat the U.S. team outraged Vicini. "I have enough coaches," he said. "I don't need another one.

"We can do it tomorrow, beat the Americans. Only after that will we do our calculations to understand if Italy can possibly make it to be first or second in the World Cup."

No one can be found predicting a U.S. victory. It's unthinkable here. Predictions of 6-0 and 10-0 are typical. The only puzzle to Italians is whether their beloved blues will eclipse the World Cup's all-time lopsided games, Yugoslavia over Zaire by 9-0 in 1974 and Hungary over El Salvador by 10-1 in 1982.

Las Vegas, hardly a soccer capital, rates Italy a three-goal favorite. Las Vegas had Czechoslovakia over the U.S. by 1 1/2 goals before Sunday's 5-1 demolition derby in Florence. But Vicini has put out a firm word to his players: "We don't want to relax, sit back and be taken by surprise."

He may want more goals than Czechoslovakia got. And he may want to give up fewer, which means zero. Italy's goalie is Walter Zenga. Ask almost any Italian about Zenga and the response will be close to this: "Best goalkeeper in the world."

Let's not forget Franco Baresi and Giuseppe Bergomi. Baresi is a hard-working sweeper who will be playing hurt. He has a bruised left arm but he's the Cal Ripken who always plays. Bergomi, a defender, is the captain who was an 18-year-old wonder for the Italians when they won the Cup in 1982.

When the Italians won the '82 Cup, that is said to have set up perhaps the ultimate in celebrations. It lasted two full days and nights.

Italians know how to celebrate soccer victories. People pour out of their homes, jump into their cars and head for the center of their cities and towns. Of course, many never make it because of the traffic.

So they sit and blow their horns and climb atop the cars and even jump into a fountain if one is handy.

There's only one hitch in the partying at this World Cup: A 24-hour pregame ban on the sale of alcohol in the city where a match is played. The ban will be in effect in Rome from 7 a.m. Thursday until 7 a.m. Friday.

Italians are mad at the English because the ban was prompted by the history of English "hooligans." Italians are angry that a few thousand nasty Englishmen have changed the way a nation of 57 million toasts its victories.

Whenever it gets a chance, much of Italy will toast Italian-American players Tony Meola and Paul Caligiuri. Meola, who called playing against Italy in Rome "a dream come true," did all he could in the game against Czechoslovakia given the numerous breakdowns in front of him, and Caligiuri scored the U.S. goal.

The American team arrived here this afternoon from its Tirrenia camp, visited the Spanish Steps, had dinner and worked out at 9 p.m. for 25 minutes under the lights at the Olympic Stadium, where more than 78,000 Carolina-blue seats roll to the heavens.

Bob Gansler, the U.S. coach, predicted that "without a doubt" his team would play better than it did Sunday. Gansler probably will make at least two lineup changes from the team that took the field Sunday. Eric Wynalda, a midfielder who cannot play Thursday because he received a red card against Czechoslovakia, will be replaced by Jimmy Banks. Defender John Stollmeyer of Annandale, Va., could be replaced by Marcelo Balboa in the hope, Gansler believes, of providing more speed on the back line.

"With an all-star {Italian} lineup like that, to focus on one, two or three players is naive. They all can beat you," Gansler said.

Even the ones who desperately want to break into the lineup. Nicola Berti seemed particularly downcast. His problem is familiar: He's just one more talent awaiting Vicini's nod.

"I'm a Ferrari," Berti said, "who never wins."

Strike Called Off

Several hundred stadium workers called off a strike less than three hours before the Argentina-Soviet Union game today at San Paolo Stadium in Naples.

The workers, mostly ticket-takers, were promised by officials that talks on raising salaries would be held. The workers complained they were being paid less than counterparts at other World Cup stadiums.

At one point, a line of policemen pushed the shouting ticket-takers away from a gate outside the stadium. No one was injured.