Impressive Italy blank Belgium
LYON, France (AP):
Goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle, combined with excellent defending helped Italy to a 2-0 win over Belgium in their first match at the European Championship yesterday.
Described as one of the worst Squadra Azzurra ever by Italian media, Antonio Conte's ageing team defied the odds to take the lead in Group E with an impressive collective display at Lyon's Grand Stade.
Ireland opened their campaign with a 1-1 draw against Sweden in the group's other game yesterday.
Giaccherini scored the opener with his first goal for Italy since 2013 from a spectacular long ball by Leonardo Bonucci. Pelle made it 2-0 in added time with a well-struck volley after a counterattack.
The early stages had none of that sparkle, with Belgium's Premier League players enjoying most of the possession but struggling to get past Italy's experienced three-man backline of Juventus defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli.
A fine move led to Belgium's first shot on goal after 10 minutes. Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan forced keeper Gianluigi Buffon to make a good save with a dipping shot from outside the box after Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini had combined well to knock the ball into his path.
But the move was the only major threat from Marc Wilmots' players, who moved the ball around well, but lacked width and any real bite in the final third.
When Italy tried to push forward, the Azzurri gave the ball away too easily when trying to find Pelle.
The 2006 world champions finally broke the deadlock in the 32nd minute when Bonucci found Giaccherini inside the Belgium area with a lofted 40-metre ball over the defence. Giaccherini controlled it with a fine touch and curled his shot past Thibaut Courtois.