Never count Italy out, that’s the lesson from Monday evening. Defying the experts, the Italians made Belgium look ordinary, pulling off an assured 2-0 victory. The play of the match belonged to Leonardo Bonucci.
In most years, Italy would be heavy favorites against Belgium, but the situation was reversed in Lyon on Monday evening. Many pundits have predicted great things for the Belgians, with their Premier League stars Kevin be Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukak, while no one much fancied this iteration of the Azzurri.
However clear the difference between the two sides may have seemed on paper, it was miniscule once the action on the pitch began. The Red Devils began in more probing fashion, but Italy showed that, while their midfield and attack may not be rated as stellar, their defense is still world class.
Having stymied Belgium for a half-hour, Italy grabbed a sudden lead when Leonardo Bonucci launched a lob almost half the length of the pitch that just cleared Belgian defender Gregory Alderweireld’s head. Emanuele Giaccherini stopped the ball on a dime and fired home to give Italy the lead.
Belgium were lucky not to fall further behind four minutes later, but Graziano Pelle sent his header wide. The half ended with Italy nearly level with Belgium in terms of shots on goal and possession – and ahead in the only category that ultimately counts.
Belgium woke from their lethargy in minute 52, taking the ball the length of the field with three passes, but Gianluigi Buffon pressured Lukaku enough that the striker couldn’t find the angle. At the other end, Pelle drew a good save from Thibaut Courtois.
After that Italy withdrew into their own half to do what they do best – defend. Belgium were unable to break their opponents down, and Italy stifled isolated attempts at counter-attacks in those rare instances of open play with well-considered professional fouls.
De Bruyne finally got a bit of space in minute 80, but Liverpool’s Divock Origi couldn’t head down the subsequent cross. Shortly thereafter, Ciro Immobile could have put the game to bed, but was unable to beat Courtois – a sight that would have been very familiar to Dortmund fans.
De Bruyne put in another quality cross one minute from time, but the ball got stuck between Marouane Fellaini’s legs. And the Belgians ran straight into an Italian counter-attack in injury time with Pelle making it 2-0.
“The boys went through some pain,” Italy coach Antonio Conte said after the match. “But they showed that they’re a good team and a title candidate.”
“We’re very disappointed,” Courtois said. “Now we have to win our next two games.”
The result suggests that pundits were foolish to discount the Azzurri, while Belgium look like anything but serious contenders for the Euro. Italy next face Sweden, while the Belgians will try to regroup against Ireland.