Sacrifice and unity the watchwords for blood-spilling Italy
By Brian Homewood
REUTERS - Short on pure talent, Italy have made sacrifice, suffering and unity their watchwords at Euro 2016 although it remains to be seen whether they can keep up such extraordinary intensity throughout the tournament.
Initially discredited but inspired by the passion of coach Antonio Conte, Italy gave the best performance of the finals so far on Monday as they overran a more technically gifted Belgium side to win 2-0 in their Group E opener.
Conte himself celebrated the first goal with such enthusiasm that he banged his head against substitute Simone Zaza and suffered a nosebleed.
Meanwhile, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon narrowly escaped injury with his celebration at the end of the game.
The 38-year-old ran towards the goal, leapt up and tried to swing from the crossbar with his hands, but fell and landed awkwardly on his back.
There was an equally jubilant reaction back home, while the players promised more of the same against Sweden and Ireland.
"It's a great start but this is just the beginning," said Leonardo Bonucci, whose 40-metre cross-field pass set up the first goal for Emanuele Giaccherini just past the half-hour.
"We have come with the intention of dreaming and surprising. We mustn't get carried away with the things we did, we have to reflect and try and improve things which were less good."
With only three days between matches, Italy may not be able to keep up such a hectic pace while their tactics, based on a rock-solid defence, may be less suited to their next opponents, Sweden and Ireland, than Belgium, who played into their hands by coming out and attacking.
An afternoon kick off on a hot day could certainly cramp their style and they will be hoping for cool conditions when they face Sweden at 3 pm local time in Toulouse on Saturday.
It is not something, however, which seems to bother Conte.
"I've been repeating from the beginning that this is a group first and foremost of men, and then of footballers," he said.
"In a tournament like this you need an alchemy of people who get on well together, and the biggest satisfaction for me is to see how happy they all were, including those on the bench. There's a very good spirit in this squad.
"We have big intentions and our objective remains the same, to get into the last 16. I think the fans are pleased when they see 23 players giving everything on the field and being willing to spill blood."
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Ken Ferris)