Italy turn up the style as Belgium fail to turn up again
Goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle secure Group E win in Lyon
Italy’s Emanuele Giaccherini slides the ball past belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to open the scoring in the Euro 2016 Group E game in Lyon. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters/Livepic
Belgium 0 Italy 2
Belgium go to Bordeaux on Saturday to meet the Republic of Ireland having stumbled into Euro 2016 and been beaten by an Italy team that has hit the ground sprinting.
While Saturday is not all or nothing for Belgium, already it comes close to it. Not only were they undone by a clever Italian team expertly set up by Antonio Conte, Marc Wilmots’s fancied side failed to perform as as unit until well into the second half.
Wilmots withdrew Romelu Lukaku, whose first touch was poor and who missed Belgium’s best chance early in the second half, but there were subdued displays all round from a team containing seven Premier League players. Eden Hazard was near anonymous.
Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne did come to life after the interval but he was frustrated by team-mates including Lukaku’s replacement, Liverpool’s Divock Origi.
With the clock in the vivid Olympique Lyonnais stadium showing 89 minutes, Origi flicked his forehead at a tempting De Bruyne cross. Origi had only to make contact it seemed to equalise but he failed to do so and behind him Marouane Fellaini was so taken aback the ball bounced off him.
Italy cleared and then deep into added time broke away to score a second, Graziano Pelle spanking in Antonio Candreva’s centre on the volley. That gave the scoreline some emphasis and sparked jubilation on the bench.
It was for the second time and Conte must have been wary. The Italy manager, and incoming Chelsea boss, suffered a cut on the face in the excitement following Emanuele Giaccherini’s 32nd-minute opener. Conte was still receiving attention to his cut in the second half.
But it was Belgium who were bruised. They now must collect themselves; Italy have momentum.
Ultimately it was a thrilling night for them but it had been interesting more than fascinating until Giaccherini scored.
For half an hour the two were testing each other out. That tactical sparring saw only one effort on target – from Radja Nainggolan, the Belgium midfielder who plays in Serie A for Roma.
Nainggolan’s 30-yard drive 10 minutes in came about after Lukaku and Fellaini won headers near the Italian area, but Gianluigi Buffon scampered to his right to palm the ball away.
Nainggolan had another shot from similar range 12 minutes later but that should not suggest a pattern of Belgium attacking. In fact, Belgium lacked a pattern. Wilmots’s team contains speed, power and trickery but in Lukaku and Hazard, he has individuals.
The contrast was apparent early with Italy. With Daniele de Rossi sitting in front of the experienced back three – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini – Italy had a recognisably Italian defensive shape.
They were intent on spreading the ball wide to Candreva and Matteo Darmian on the flanks yet Thibaut Courtois had barely touched the ball when Giaccherini scored.
Three minutes before that Pelle enlivened the Italians in the stadium with a sighter and it proved a prelude to the goal.
In possession on the halfway line, Leonardo Bonucci looked up and floated a pass that travelled nearly 40 yards.
Andrea Pirlo has been omitted from the squad but this was Pirlo-esque. The pass cleared the attempted header of Toby Alderweireld and the Tottenham defender was exposed when Giaccherini collected it with a soft first touch. That was with his left foot; with his right he guided the ball calmly and precisely around Courtois into the far corner.
Giaccherini spent last season on loan at Bologna, but he still belongs to Sunderland.
Italy looked strong. Candreva forced Courtois into a save three minutes later and from the resulting corner, Eder, Italy’s adopted Brazilian won a header which flew to Pelle. From seven yards out Pelle headed wide.
Had the Southampton striker scored, the scoreline might have seemed irretrievable to the Belgians.
Instead they had something to cling to. Wilmots cannot have been satisfied with the first half and Belgium began the second with much-needed greater urgency.
Eight minutes into it, the equaliser seemed about to come. With Italy pushed upfield, Belgium broke initially through Hazard in his own half. The ball went quickly to De Bruyne and suddenly Belgium were two-on-one. If De Bruyne could make the right pass fast enough, Lukaku would be through on Buffon.
De Bruyne did this, first time. Lukaku 20 yards out and with Buffon coming towards him, lofted the ball over and around the goalkeeper, but it was also over and around the net.
It was Lukaku’s only sight of goal and he should have hit it. Twenty minutes later he was replaced by Origi.
With Fellaini having dropped deeper, and another substitute, Dries Mertens, making an impact from the wing, Belgium at last displayed some consistent menace. But it was too little, too late.
BELGIUM (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Ciman (Carrasco, 75 mins) Alderweirald, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Nainggolan (Mertens, 62 mins) Witsel; De Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard; R Lukaku (Origi, 73 mins).
ITALY (3-1-4-2): Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; De Rossi (Motta, 79 mins); Candreva, Parolo, Giaccherini, Darmian (De Sciglio, 59 mins); Pelle, Eder (Immobile, 75 mins).
Referee: M Clattenburg (England)