LYON, France — A superbly-executed strategy by coach Antonio Conte helped Italy to a deserved 2-0 win over Belgium in their Euro 2016 opener with outstanding goals by Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pellè on Monday.
At their vintage best defensively, and threatening on the counter-attack, Italy extended their unbeaten competitive run against the Belgians to 44 years having last lost to them in a 1972 European Championship playoff.
“The result shows that nothing in football can be taken for granted and we did our talking on the pitch,” a delighted Conte told a news conference after the Group E clash against the world’s second-ranked team.
“I have been saying for a long time that this is a squad of men and good footballers. In this competition it’s only right to have this alchemy and I was overjoyed with how everyone got involved, including players on the bench.”
“It shows a great team spirit.”
Although tactically outfoxed, Conte’s opposite number Marc Wilmots — fielding the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku — defended his talented but disjointed side, which again flattered to deceive on the big stage.
“We lost a battle but we haven’t lost the war and it’s the qualification for the next round that counts,” Wilmots told Belgium’s RTBF television.
“We did a lot that was good but if you don’t make it count, you can’t win the game.”
Monday’s win put former European champions Italy on top of the section, with Sweden and Ireland having earlier shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw, while a Belgium side dripping with talent now have plenty of work ahead to reach the last 16.
Conte’s bold 3-5-2 formation worked to perfection in the first half, with wing-backs Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva proving a handful when on the attack and solid defensively.
Usually deployed on the right behind Candreva, Darmian was pushed further upfield on the left and the switch, plus the duo’s tireless running, gave Italy‘s midfield room to operate.
Seemingly on the back foot as a toothless Belgium had more possession, Italy always looked more likely to score and they took the lead against the run of play after a sublime move.
Centre back Leonardo Bonucci delivered an inch-perfect pass down the middle from the halfway line and livewire Giaccherini side-footed past Courtois after taking the ball in his stride.
Clearly rattled, the Belgians were lucky not to fall further behind a few minutes later when Pellè headed just wide after a fine save by Courtois who palmed away a stinging Candreva shot.
For all his hard work in the first half, Belgium captain Hazard could not start and finish everything as he received little support in feeding lone striker Lukaku.
Both sides raised the tempo after the break and spiced up a cracking atmosphere in Lyon’s glittering new stadium with some fast-paced football.
Belgium came out with more purpose and Lukaku missed a gilt-edged chance in the 53rd minute, curling his shot narrowly over the bar past advancing Italy keeper Gianluigi Buffon after good work by the hard-working De Bruyne.
Pellè forced a fine one-handed save from Courtois at full stretch barely 30 seconds later at the other end after yet another darting run and cross by Candreva.
With Belgium throwing men forward in the closing stages, Courtois again prevented a second Italian goal when he kept out a rasping shot by substitute Ciro Immobile.
But he was powerless in stoppage time when another sweeping move saw Candreva cross to Pellè who volleyed home and was mobbed as the entire Italy bench who rushed on to the pitch.