Italy sent a strong message to the rest of the teams in Euro 2016 with an assertive 2-0 win over Belgium in their Group E encounter in Lyon on Monday night. Goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle saw the Azzurri claim all three points against a disappointing Belgian side.
Belgium: Courtois, Ciman, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Witsel, Nainggolan, Fellaini, De Bruyne, Hazard, R Lukaku
Italy: Buffon, Chiellini, Barzagli, Bonucci, Darmian, Candreva, De Rossi, Parolo, Giaccherini, Pelle, Eder
Belgium started with a 4-3-3 formation with Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan in midfield. The Premier League trio of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku started in attack for Marc Wilmots’s side.
Italy started out with their traditional 3-5-2 formation as the age-old rearguard of Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci protecting Gianluigi Buffon’s goal. Without the likes of Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio in the squad and Thiago Motta on the bench, Antonio Conte played Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian as wing-backs alongside Daniele De Rossi and Marco Parolo while Emanuele Giaccherini played in a free role as a no.10. Graziano Pelle and Eder started up front.
Compact Italy vs disjointed Belgium
The Red Devils may have topped the FIFA rankings and qualified convincingly from their group in the Euro qualifiers. But they looked far from a team that deserved to win the tournament as the so-called underdogs.
With one of the youngest sides in the tournament, Belgium started the first half brightly before losing their way. They came close to opening the scoring when Fellaini tried to set up Nainggolan near the edge of the box and the Roma midfielder took the shot first-time. But the 38-year-old Buffon was up to the task as he made a reflex save to his left.
The Azzurri were looking to keep the ball and played with a lot of one-touch passing which did see them squander possession. But whenever they did, they immediately shifted to a compact 5-3-2 that saw both Hazard and De Bruyne frustrated on the flanks. The strategy also saw Lukaku starved of the ball and the Everton striker’s frustration got the better of him on one occasion, lucky to escape a booking when he slid into Chiellini to win the ball back.
Conte’s side were struggling to mount attacks of their own with both Pelle and Eder largely isolated at the start of the first half with Giaccherini simply unable to bring them into action. His decision-making was not ideal and Pelle was reduced to taking pot-shots from outside the box when he had a sniff of a chance with Thibaut Courtois untroubled.
Italy catch Belgium napping to take first-half lead
Italy soon took the lead through Emanuele Giaccherini against the run of play. As Bonucci controlled the ball in the centre circle, he spotted the run of the Sunderland midfielder and sent in a Pirlo-esque long ball into the box, over the head of Toby Alderweireld. Laurent Ciman was caught napping as Giaccherini controlled the ball and curled it past a hapless Courtois to make it 1-0.
Pelle should have made it 2-0 minutes later as a panicked clearance from Belgium saw the ball loop into the air in their own box. The ball was flicked back for the Southampton striker but his header went just wide of the post with Courtois well and truly out of the picture.
Unable to break down Italy’s defence, Belgium also resorted to shots from long range as even Witsel tried his luck from outside the box only to miss the target. When that did not work, long balls became the order of the day as Fellaini played in an advanced role like he had done when Manchester United were deseprate for a goal under Louis van Gaal.
Italy get the job done in second half
If the first half was slow and steady, the second 45 minutes burst into life with chances at both ends in the early stages of the half. Belgium kicked things off with arguably one of the best counter-attacks of the tournament when De Bruyne received the ball on the run and immediately fed Lukaku who found himself in plenty of space. As Buffon rushed out to deny the Belgian, Lukaku attempted to scoop the ball over the Juventus goalkeeper only to see it drift agonisingly wide of the far post.
Before fans could catch their breath, Italy looked to score at the other end. A cross into the box saw Pelle rise above the defence to fire in a header from point-blank range but Courtois stuck his right hand out to keep out a shot tat was destined for the back of the net.
Sensing the danger of Belgium’s threat from counter-attacks, Italy opted to sit back and absorb pressure. This allowed the Belgians to control possession but again struggled to find a way into the final third as a wall of white shirts stood in their way.
Even when Belgium did find the freedom to counter, Italy's cynical fouls saw them break down any buildup before it was even allowed to start. Both Chiellini and Eder were guilty of deliberately fouling Hazard and substitute Dries Mertens respectively when they looked to burst into attacking areas. Mark Clattenburg was met with little resistance when he fished out his yellow card for both fouls.
The substitutes from either side also had chances on goal, coming close to scoring as well. Divok Origi first attempted a header from a De Bruyne cross that sailed just over the bar although Buffon looked to have it covered. But it would have tested the Italian had it been on target.
At the other end, Italy had another chance to make it 2-0 on a counter-attack. Ciro Immobile managed to shoot a piledriver of a shot on goal that curled and dipped before Courtois' glove pushed it away for a corner kick.
In the 90th minute, Belgium squandered one last opportunity to score when another cross from De Bruyne on the right flank was sent into Origi. The Liverpool striker was unmarked but failed to connect as the ball fell at Fellaini’s feet. However, the big Belgian did not expect it and the ball bounced around in the box before Buffon calmly collected it.
Italy then finished the game in emphatic fashion when Belgium committed too many men forward allowing Antonio Candreva to assess his options and lob the ball to Graziano Pelle who was unmarked and had ample time to set himself up for a thunderous volley into an empty net. Delirious celebrations followed with even Buffon sprinting the length of the pitch to join in as the Azzurri went to the top of Group E.Published 14 Jun 2016, 00:41 IST