Emanuele Giaccherini and a last-gasp Graziano Pelle' counter gave Italy the perfect start to Euro 2016, beating Group E seeds Belgium 2-0.
Earlier today Sweden and the Republic of Ireland drew 1-1 in the other Group E encounter. The Azzurri opened their campaign in a rainy Lyon with Belgium, the number two side in the FIFA World ranking. Both teams lost important players before the tournament, such as Claudio Marchisio, Vincent Kompany, Marco Verratti and Nicolas Lombaerts.
The Red Devils had only ever beaten Italy once in competitive games, 2-1 in the 1972 European Championship quarter-final, with two draws and two Azzurri wins.
Antonio Conte’s starting XI was the oldest in the history of the Euros, average age 31 years and 169 days.
Antonio Candreva was in acres of space down the right and his roll across for Graziano Pellè was crucially intercepted in the six-yard box by Jan Vertonghen. Gigi Buffon made the first save after 10 minutes, palming a fierce Radja Nainggolan strike round the post, and the Roma man drilled another wide.
There was controversy on 23 minutes, as Laurent Ciman seemed to catch Emanuele Giaccherini’s leg in a mistimed tackle, but the referee awarded a goal kick rather than the potential penalty.
Pellè fired just wide from 20 metres and Italy took the lead when Leo Bonucci placed a Pirlo-esque ball over the top for Giaccherini’s great first touch on the left foot, curling it past Thibaut Courtois with his right. It was Ciman who was the weak link again, failing to cut out the assist.
Amusingly, Coach Conte was left with a cut lip after Simone Zaza over-celebrated in his touchline hug.
Moments later, Courtois saw his gloves stung by a ferocious Candreva strike, then Pellè steered a free header inches wide with the goalkeeper rooted to the spot.
Belgium tried shooting from distance, Axel Witsel wide and Kevin De Bruyne charged down, while Candreva’s assist for Pellè was slightly behind him.
After the restart it was end to end stuff, as Candreva hesitated and allowed Vertonghen to block his shot, then Belgium went on a rapid counter and Lukaku’s lob was inches over the empty net, as Buffon had rushed out to narrow the angle.
Courtois needed a fingertip save to deny another Pellè header and there was another splendid Bonucci pass over the top, but Eder’s first touch did not match Giaccherini’s for the goal.
The Red Devils increasingly pegged back a tired Italy and Eder took one for the team by wrestling Dries Mertens to the ground on the counter.
Belgium moved to three at the back in the final 15 minutes, as Divock Origi’s header was just over from seven yards, but on the counter Ciro Immobile’s strike was palmed out from under the bar by a one-handed Courtois save.
Marc Wilmots’ men poured forward, as both Origi and Fellaini failed to make the most of a dangerous cross, so Marco Parolo shepherded it back to Buffon with his chest.
Instead, Italy made the most of the counter deep into stoppages with Pelle' volleying in undisturbed from six yards.
Belgium 0-2 Italy
Giaccherini 32 (I), Pelle' 93 (I)
Belgium: Courtois; Ciman (Carrasco 75), Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel, Nainggolan (Mertens 62); De Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard; R Lukaku (Origi 73)
Italy: Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, De Rossi (Thiago Motta 78), Giaccherini, Darmian (De Sciglio 58); Pellè, Eder (Immobile 75)
Ref: Clattenburg (ENG)