Italy beat world No. 2 Belgium 2-0 in its first match of the UEFA EURO 2016 Group E here on Monday.
Bologona midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini, 31, lifted Italy to 1-0 lead with a clinical finish in the 32nd minute when Leonardo Bonucci curled a brilliant long pass over the Belgium defense. Giaccherini took a touch with his left foot and curled past Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois.
It was Giaccherini’s first goal for Italy since 2013, and he was picked as the Man of the Match.
Giaccherini said, “We have to do even more than we normally do. The defense were definitely fantastic tonight. It is a match with less space.”
“What mattered tonight was the victory. I’m delighted with my goal, but the team comes first,” he added.
Southampton forward Graziano Pelle, 30, sealed the win for Italy with a bullet volley in the box in the 93rd minute when Belgians were throwing everything at pulling level, allowing Italian substitute Ciro Immobile to drive off the left flank and found Lazio midfielder Antonio Candreva on the right. Candreva lifted a brilliant ball to the back post for Pelle to volley in.
Italy coach Antonio Conte said, “The two sides played entertaining football tonight. Belgium showed their strength again, both from the starting 11 and from the bench. They have a number of talented players and they are one of the favorites to win the tournament.”
“I must say we performed very well tonight, and we give 100 percent to not giving away. No ifs, No buts. we want to make the last 16. And the victory put us in the good position to go through the group stage,” Conte added.
Belgium, standing second in the latest FIFA rankings in June, had beaten Italy 3-1 last November in a friendly and had kept unbeaten in 24 of their last 27 international matches.
Belgium’s Everton forward Romelu Lukaku, 23, who had scored in each of his last four international matches, squandered the best chance to equal the score.
In the 53rd minute, a pinpoint pass from Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne was just through to Lukaku. But the star striker was in space running to the right of goal and his shot lacked conviction and curled just wide.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said, “Italy’s first goal put us in the difficult situation. They tried to hit us on counter attacks.”
The tit-for-tat game was quite opening up as both sides focused on attacks and counter-attacks instead of pure defense. As Italy led 1-0 in the first half, Belgium had to push for an equaliser, which allowed Italy to find more gaps on the counterattacks.
Wilmots said, “Nothing is over now. We really need to be very competitive for the next match and for reaching the last 16.”