Euro 2016: Wily Italy show up Belgium and its stars
As the Italian football team stepped out of their coach upon arrival at the stadium, what was striking was how dapper they looked. Well, they always do; for generations the Italian players have always been amongst the most stylish. By the end of their night, they still had their coolness intact, having done an Italian job on the world's second best ranked team, Belgium. Well, they always do that too; perform in international events even if the odds are against them. Some things don't change.
Not too long ago, Belgium were in fact the top ranked team in the FIFA rankings, a result of the accumulation of good results over the course of the last four years with a very gifted set of individuals. The country has become a supply line of talent to Europe's top leagues with the English Premier League, in particular, benefitting mightily. Last night, on paper, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne hugely overshadowed the likes of Marco Parolo, Emanuele Giacherinni and Graziano Pelle in the opposing corner.
Yet, once the bell got the contest underway, the Italians, like trusted pizza sauce, got the better of the Belgians, who resembled a waffle gone wrong - stale, hard and nothing appetising about them.
Antonio Conte and his Belgian counterpart, Marc Wilmots, are both from the same generation, they're even the same age. But Conte led Italian giants to three straight Serie A titles while Wilmots' cabinet as a manager is still empty. He's brought in all those tactics that he employed to such great effect at Juventus into the Italian fold.
The use of the 3-5-2 formation for starters, which can morph into the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 as desired. And this strategy was pressed into play last night with the use of Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva nullifying Belgium completely. Candreva also provided the main attacking outlet down the right with his exceptional crossing. He was certainly my man-of-the-match.
The Italians have their own version of the BBC, their battle-hardened back three of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. You could go to war with them in the trenches and they'd do everything in their power to hold down the fort. They isolated Lukaku up front and took him out of the game leaving Belgium with no focal point.
As for aerial balls into the box, the Italians are amongst the best at that too, and every delivery was met with a commanding header. The choice to go with Marouane Fellaini against such a defensively strong team also snuffed out an outlet. The wingbacks meant the threat of Hazard and De Bruyne was contained, which led to Belgium mainly getting off shots from outside the box, hardly troubling Gianluigi Buffon in goal.
Italy were typically brilliant in defence and clinical on the counter-attack, yet Belgian fans would have been disheartened to see the kind of effort from their side. There wasn't ever a moment, barring Lukaku's one good chance where Italy really felt threatened.
There were half chances here and there, but nothing of note. That would be the major worry for Belgium going forward. Wilmots could have changed a few things up by introducing Mousa Dembele, who can hold the ball brilliantly and play an incisive pass, in place of Fellaini. And Michy Batshuayi, who has had a stellar Ligue 1 season was kept behind both Lukaku and Divock Origi. Belgium's approach yesterday played into the Italians' hands.
For a team ranked second in the world, the Belgians were very underwhelming notwithstanding the excellent display from last edition's finalists Italy.
Despite France being favourites to lift the title on home soil, and the likes of Germany and Spain remaining strong, this is a fairly open tournament and Belgium should realise that they're in with a chance here. They need to get their act together, however, and make the right decisions, tactically and personnel-wise, else all that talent is going to come to nought.