Belgium vs Italy match report: Emmanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle seal brilliant win

Belgium 0 Italy 2

Tim Rich
Stade des Lumières
Monday 13 June 2016 22:15
Italy's players mob Giaccherini after his opening goal
Italy's players mob Giaccherini after his opening goal

This was supposed to be a contest between youth and ambition against age and guile. Despite all of the pre-tournament predictions that this would be Belgium’s year, age and guile in a familiar form won out.

This was supposed to be the worst Italian side that had ever been sent to a major tournament facing a Belgian side that might have been the very best they have ever taken to a championship. It was perhaps not a surprise that, given the offer of managing Chelsea, Antonio Conte decided to take his leave of Italy once the European Championship was done.

Nevertheless, the thirty-something Emmanuele Giaccherini, who failed to make any kind of impression at Sunderland, scored the decisive goal and Graziano Pelle, who has enjoyed rather more success with Southampton, volleyed home with brutal finality to seal the match with its last kick.

The Belgium manager, Marc Wilmots, had remarked before the game that, however derided and underestimated the Italians were, they were never more dangerous than when their backs were jammed against the wall.

Wilmots was more right than he knew and the question will be how this young Belgium side recovers from a shattering defeat that leaves one of the favourites at the bottom of the closest thing Euro 2016 has to a group of death.

Hazard, Belgium's stand-in captain, struggled to make an impact

Until the astonishingly swift rise of Belgian football, theirs was a country to be driven through and ignored. When people talked of the Low Countries and football, they meant Holland, a nation whose tactics and players were idolised while Belgium’s were consigned to a footnote.

Now, however, the Netherlands were one of very few nations to have failed to qualify for what is a vastly overblown tournament, while Belgium went into it as officially the best team in Europe. If only they had played like it.

When Vincent Kompany broke down terminally while captaining Manchester City, there were many who said it would cost Belgium the Euros. Kompany was a leader, an organiser and even Eden Hazard, who would be wearing Kompany’s armband, admitted they would have to fight to fill the void he left behind.

They missed him in Lyon and during the second half, when Antonio Candreva was blocked on the byline by Jan Vertonghen, the Tottenham defender turned and screamed at the rest of his back four.

There was, however, nothing much Kompany or anyone else for that matter could have done for the goal that saw Italy break through.

It was made by a wonderful ball delivered from near the halfway line by Leonardo Bonucci that skimmed just over the top of Toby Alderweireld’s head and was taken beautifully under control by Emanuele Giaccherini, who clipped his shot past Thibaut Courtois. In the second half Kevin de Bruyne produced a similar kind of ball for Romelu Lukaku but the Everton striker’s shot was screwed wide and eventually he was substituted.

Giaccherini is still on Sunderland’s books, having joined the club in 2013 under the brief, disastrous stewardship of Paolo di Canio. Lyon’s Stade des Lumieres is one of three European stadiums that is called ‘The Stadium of Light” and Giaccherini finished with more style than he ever did at the one on the north bank of the Wear.

The celebrations with the Italy bench were so intense that Conte appeared to suffer a cut lip. The damage done to Belgium by Giaccherini was a far deeper wound.

Pelle wheels away after scoring in the dying moments

The 31-year-old had spent last season on loan at Bologna and was recalled by the Azzurri on the strength of seven goals in 28 Serie A games. Before the tournament Sunderland, who paid £6m for him, were quoting Torino a £2m fee for a permanent move. That price may have risen.

Italy now had the game by the throat but they did not quite make the kill. Candreva spun and shot, forcing Courtois to scramble the ball away for a corner. The dead ball was not properly cleared, presenting Graziano Pelle with a free, close-range header he somehow contrived to miss.

Midway through the second half, Pelle had another, more accurate header and this time Courtois flung himself full length to save. Belgium’s only hope seemed to be that they were only a goal down.

Belgium had their moments but they were fewer and from distance. Radja Nainggoalan, tattooed and with a bleached blond Mohican, forced Gianluigi Buffon into a fine save when the game was still goalless. Buffon is 38 and by playing in this match became the first European footballer to take part in eight consecutive major tournaments. He and his three centre-backs, all from Juventus, had come through these pressure situations many times before.

When Marouane Fellaini sent De Bruyne though just before the interval, he was blocked by a fabulous interception by Giaccherini. He never did too much of that at Sunderland either.

Match rating 7/10

Man of the match: Giaccherini.

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