Ridiculed and vilified before a ball had been kicked; resolute and victorious once the games begin. Italy, we have been here before.
Italy's Graziano Pelle heads at goal
The Azzurri achieved what many back home had claimed was beyond them to illuminate the European Championships with a clinical, spirited and tactically superb victory over Belgium. The team ranked second in the world remain an unequal sum of their parts.
Italy triumphed the classic Italian way to dismantle not only preconceptions but Belgium as an attacking and defensive unit. They defended with intelligence, strength and the occasional tactical foul, seized their clearest chances and worked ferociously for each other. There was no clearer illustration of the unity running through the team than when Graziano Pellè sealed the win in stoppage time and 38-year-old Gianluigi Buffon sprinted the length of the pitch to pile into the celebrations. Southampton completed the victory and Sunderland started it, though supporters at the Stadium of Light will have been hard-pressed to recognise the Emanuele Giaccherini who disappointed for their club but excelled with the opening goal in Lyon.
A triumph of organisation for Chelsea’s manager-in-waiting Antonio Conte. Another ordeal for Marc Wilmots. The Belgium coach was booed for his substitutions and at the final whistle. In contrast to Conte, he continues to oversee underwhelming displays on the international stage and resorted to singling out Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku for ineffective displays. “Romelu didn’t have a happy night and Kevin could do better too, but now is not the time to criticise individuals,” said a coach who may not survive falling short in this tournament with this group of players. Wilmots’ focus on individuals was telling. Belgium performed like a collection of them, Italy as a collective, and were thoroughly deserving of victory in the game of the competition thus far.
“I’ve been saying from the start and I don’t tell lies – this is a squad of men and of good footballers,” said Conte. “In competitions like this it is right you have this alchemy between players who enjoy being together and the best thing for me tonight was how everyone got involved. That said, we need to be happy tonight and then prepare for Sweden because two years we won the first game with an excellent performance [against England] but went out in the group stage. These memories burn me and the supporters.”
Italy’s coach had seemingly inherited the least distinguished squad in the Azzurri’s history but there was little evidence to support that damning assessment here. Their game-plan unfolded to perfection as they frustrated and stifled Belgium as a creative or aerial force. Conte could not resist a dig at those who had written off his players. “I don’t think a single game can completely change people’s assessments,” he said; “because that would mean those people giving the assessments know nothing at all about football. Two years ago is still an open wound.”
Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and Radja Nainggolan started purposefully as they went in search of Belgium’s first competitive victory over Italy since 1972. Their build-up had been beset by defensive issues, the coach unhappy at the ability of his full-backs and having also lost Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts to injury, and those concerns prove prescient.
Belgium created the game’s first opening when Lukaku and Fellaini combined to tee up Nainggolan for a 25-yard drive that Buffon pushed away. The veteran goalkeeper was making his 157th appearance for his country and his appearance here made him the first European to appear in eight consecutive major international tournaments. He would be well protected by a three-man central defence of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
Italy may have had a penalty when Laurant Ciman caught Giaccherini just inside the area as they raced to the byline. The Sunderland misfit was incandescent as the referee, Mark Clattenburg, dismissed his appeals but was soon delirious as opened the scoring.
The breakthrough was simple in creation but brilliant in execution. Bonucci sprayed a superb ball over the Belgium defence from the halfway line. Giaccherini sprinted into the gap between Toby Alderweireld and Ciman and, when the Tottenham Hotspur player badly misjudged his jump, the striker who spent last season on loan at Bologna controlled magnificently with his left foot before tucking the ball beyond Thibaut Courtois with his right.
“If you can have an assist from 40 yards and there are three central defenders present then there has clearly been a breakdown in communications,” lamented Wilmots.
Italy should have been in dreamland moments later when Pellè headed wide after Belgium failed to deal with two corners in quick succession. Belgium’s final ball regularly betrayed them although Lukaku squandered a glorious chance to equalise when played through by De Bruyne. The substitute Divock Origi also glanced over and, with Belgium vulnerable to the counter-attack, Italy struck in stoppage time when Candreva crossed for Pellè to volley home from close range. An exhilarating evening and a game the tournament needed.
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