Italy showed they remain a force to be reckoned with after starting their UEFA EURO 2016 Group E bid with an impressive 2-0 victory against highly rated Belgium.
For all their gifted individuals, the Red Devils looked a disjointed force in the opening half as both Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne ran into white shirts whenever they took possession. Radja Nainggolan had the first glimpse at goal, elicting a save from Gianluigi Buffon, but the 18,000 or so Belgian fans in attendance were in for a shock on 32 minutes when the Azzurri went ahead via a moment of excellence.
Leonardo Bonucci started it, picking out Emanuele Giaccherini with a wonderful lofted pass over Toby Alderweireld, and the Bologna midfielder controlled well before slotting past Thibaut Courtois for his first international goal since 2013. Belgium were rattled, and both Antonio Candreva and Graziano Pellè could have stung them with a second shortly after.
Pellè then forced Courtois into a one-handed save from a header as the second period began at a livelier pace, and Romelu Lukaku nearly levelled when he flashed wide on the counter. Suddenly there was a little more intensity about Marc Wilmots’s men, substitute Divock Origi wasteful with a header, but the Italian resistance held firm – and they had the final say when Pellè volleyed in emphatically in added time.
Man of the match: Emanuele Giaccherini
Italy’s opener owed so much to Bonucci’s sublime ball, but Giaccherini took it so well, controlling with apparent ease and showing great composure to beat Courtois. The No23 was a vital cog in Conte’s well-oiled midfield, also catching the eye by blocking a first-half De Bruyne shot.
Conte shows his calibre
Billed by many as the weakest Italy team in decades, the Azzurri got going with expectations low, particularly as front pair Éder and Pellè had just seven national-team goals between them. That appears to have been grossly unfair, with Antonio Conte masterminding a win that will have alerted the rest of the competition to their menace. Italy’s midfield quintet smothered Belgium’s supply lines while also offering attacking options – as Giaccherini proved.
Conte’s line-up is built on the solid foundations of a trio of experienced Juventus defenders, and the coach will want to squeeze every drop out of this side’s potential before he takes the Chelsea reins next season.
Problems persist for Belgium
The highest-ranked team in Europe they may be, but Belgium came into this tournament with no clean sheets in their last seven and here Wilmots’s charges conceded for the eighth consecutive match – being undone by Bonucci’s pass.
In mitigation, most sides would suffer without injured duo Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts, and Belgium initially looked inhibited by the fielding of four centre-backs across their defensive line, until wide duo Laurent Ciman and Jan Vertonghen ventured forward more after the restart. Until then, Hazard and De Bruyne often found themselves removed from the heat of the action, patrolling the flanks.