Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pell seal Italy win over Belgium
Stunning goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pell gave Italy a 2-0 victory over Belgium in their Euro 2016 Group E match at Stade de Lyon
Ridiculed and vilified before a ball had been kicked; resolute and victorious once the games begin. Italy, we have been here before. 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 Pell 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 Chelseas 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 didnt 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.
Ive been saying from the start and I dont 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.
Italys coach had seemingly inherited the least distinguished squad in the Azzurris 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 dont think a single game can completely change peoples 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.