In what was arguably the first big clash of the tournament, Italy came out on top against Belgium thanks to a well-taken goal each from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle as their much-fancied opponents struggled to test Gianluigi Buffon.
Having seen Ireland and Sweden draw 1-1 at Stade de France a few hours earlier, the Azzurris took their chance to climb to the top of Group E with a performance that surprised many.
Belgium were a lot of people’s favourites for Euro 2016 but their limp stumble against the Italians will have many reassessing their pre-tournament predictions, while the ‘Boot Nation’ have certainly gone up a notch in many viewers’ esteem.
Italians played a potent brand of football
In the eighth minute, the Italians transformed defence into attack with fluid ease as some silky defensive play eventually saw Antonio Candreva release the ball before it was headed into the path of Eder who found Matteo Darmian and his darting run almost set up a dangerous attack only to see their efforts thwarted by an interception. Throughout the contest, they teased this sort of tactic and it often stretched Les Diables Rouges to breaking point.
These vignettes spoke volumes and ultimately foreshadowed the end because their counter-attacking prowess would ensure their victory at the death as Pelle put the final flourish to their win with a wonderfully hit volley after a clean breakaway saw them punish a flat-footed Belgian defence. All the same, they didn’t rely solely on that strength to cause one of the pre-tournament favourites plenty of problems.
Indeed, as reported by Football Italia, Belgium coach Marc Wilmots was critical of Italy's reliance on a style he deemed rather cynical:
“Italy specifically played on the counter-attack. They did not play real football and when faced with everyone sitting back, it becomes difficult. Now we must look ahead and focus on the next two games, as those are very important.”
Surrendering possession didn’t impede their potency or incisive nature because they were clever enough to maximise their threat whenever they did find the ball at their feet.
Another intelligent ploy they carried out was to spray the ball out wide to Candreva or Marco Parolo on the right flank. Time and again, Italy looked to expose Belgium’s shaky back-line and in particular the out-of-position left-back of Jan Vertonghen who was not in his more comfortable role as a centre-back.
They might not have profited directly from targeting this specific weakness, but their joy down that flank certainly imbued them with the confidence to take the game to Belgium as the clock ticked by.
Belgium were disconnected
Some positive early play saw Radja Nainggolan test Buffon from long range with a well-hit half volley as the Red Devils looked to give the back four clad in white something to think about before he produced something similar in the 22nd minute that dragged wide, but their overall attacking play was rather disjointed and some of their big names simply didn’t do enough to make a dent in Italy's hopes.
In particular, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne was off the pace and endured a torrid time in Lyon. So many of his passes were mis-hit, his delivery from set-pieces was erratic at best and he looked uncomfortable on the pitch, often playing balls that simply weren't on. As one of their primary playmakers, the 24-year-old’s anonymity meant that Marc Wilmots’ charges lacked the right service and were missing a key catalyst in such a big game.
The knock-on effect of his sub-par performance meant that even as the match wore on they couldn’t evolve away from a team that enjoyed the odd long-range punt. They were bereft of invention and looked perplexed as to how they would break through the door which had been so firmly bolted by the Italian rearguard.
The 41st minute was one of the very rare occasions that saw them cause concern as Marouane Fellaini played a brilliant threaded ball into the feet of De Bruyne whose shot was blocked before being cleared for a throw-in.
To their credit, their 53rd minute counterstrike which saw Lukaku clip the ball over the bar after being played in by one of the few good passes from De Bruyne also had Italian hearts in mouths, but these sort of cutting-edge attacks simply weren’t regular enough, and as we’ll discuss shortly a lot of that was because they were up against a team who knew how to defend all over the park.
Overall, though, they struggled to fashion much to put Buffon under pressure. Worryingly, they didn’t get the ball out wide enough and when they did, the service wasn’t the right height for Fellaini or Romelu Lukaku to capitalise on. It was a weak performance and one that will have many questioning their title credentials.
Conte’s men defensively superior
Key to Belgium’s ineffective offensive attempts (aside from their unimaginative forays) was the fact that Antonio Conte’s team simply possessed a tremendous back three.
The Juventus trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci (who was immense in attack as well, considering he produced the assist for the opening strike) and Andrea Barzagli proved an almost impenetrable blockade who were switched on at all times, and their incredible knack for consistently producing blocks, interceptions and tackles that dealt with danger played a massive role in the final result.
They were so good that they had managed to completely eradicate any negative chatter about their team's chances of taking the Henri Delaunay trophy come July 10.
However, it wasn’t simply their defenders who knew how to defend because it really was a cohesive effort. In many ways it was typical of the Italians. Naturally, they are traditionally a very conservative team who like to soak up pressure before unleashing it to score goals on the fly, but it was the way they carried out their duties as a unit that was most striking – the midfield was eager to drop back and help out whenever danger popped up.
Indeed, as pointed out by prominent football pundit Stevie Grieve, they committed more than their fair share of tactical fouls to prevent the team ranked no.2 in the FIFA World rankings from rampaging forward:
I think thats 3 tactical fouls to prevent counter attacks from Italy #Clever— Stevie Grieve (@Steviegrieve) June 13, 2016
The prime example of this was when Chiellini hauled Eden Hazard to ground after his careless pass in the middle of the pitch afforded the Chelsea star the chance to run menacingly at goal in the 65th minute.
At that point, the game was still in the balance, but the experience of the 31-year-old Italy no.3 paid dividends as did the guile of several of his team-mates during similar instances throughout the game.
With a defensive nous such as this, combined with a clinical attack, they have the capacity to go far and will certainly excite the further they go in the competition.Published 14 Jun 2016, 09:35 IST