Antonio Conte guides Italy to tactical masterclass over Belgium
LYON -- Three thoughts from the Parc Olympique Lyonnais where Italy topped Belgium 2-0 in Group E action.
1. Conte's tactics spot on as Italy triumph
Italy, eliminated in the group stages from two of their last three tournaments, comfortably picked off Belgium in Lyon. The contrast between the two sides could not have been starker. Marc Wilmots' Belgium looked like a team of talented individuals, awkwardly sharing the stage for the first time. Antonio Conte's Italy were a machine -- a machine that was perhaps put together with less than perfect parts, but a machine that was well-oiled and highly effective.
Huge screens have protected Italian training sessions from prying eyes this week and Conte's secret work clearly paid off. The Azzurri had plenty of tricks up their sleeve and looked not just comfortable, but markedly the better side. Emanuele Giaccherini opened the scoring after 32 minutes, cushioning a superb pass from Leonardo Bonucci with one foot and slipping it past Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with the other. Italy should have doubled their advantage four minutes later, but Graziano Pelle failed to take advantage of a defensive mix-up that left him with a free header from close range, edging the ball wide. He made up for it at the end though, blasting the ball home from close range as Belgium were torn apart on the break.
Conte used Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva as wing backs, but pushed them so far forward and so far wide that they spent most of the game level with strikers Eder and Pelle. The ploy kept Belgium's full-backs spread out and pinned back. Conte said earlier this week that he wanted his wide players to leave the pitch "spitting blood," after an hour. The way they worked here suggested that might not be just an empty metaphor, but mercifully Darmian's shirt was clean when he was replaced by Mattia de Sciglio on 58 minutes.
The Italians were just as good after the break. It took a fine one-handed save from Courtois to prevent Pelle in the 55th minute, and though Belgium improved and began to threaten, Italy were able to calmly play the ball out from the back and make their own counter-attacks. As the game wore on, it became a more traditional story.
Conte's men withdrew and fortified their positions in their own half. Giorgio Chiellini was indomitable, Bonucci was magnificent. And the tactical fouls began in earnest. Eder, Chiellini and Bonucci were all cautioned in the second half for cynically truncating Belgian attacks and they all walked away from referee Mark Clattenburg satisfied that they'd made the right decision. Italy lived on their nerves a little at the end, though this is familiar territory, but they could still catch Belgium unaware. Courtois was again forced to produce a fine save to deny substitute Ciro Immobile late on. And then, as Belgian shoulders sagged and heads dropped, Pelle put the game beyond doubt with a thumping finish.
Italy were excellent, but you do wonder just how good they'd be with a top class centre-forward. With respect to Pelle and Eder, who worked tirelessly throughout, imagine a team as shrewd and organised as this, but with Roberto Baggio or even Filippo Inzaghi as the spearhead. Sadly, the days when Italy were spoiled for choice with that calibre of player have passed. But they certainly have that calibre of manager.
2. Belgium offer limp display
There's something not right with this Belgian side and you can only blame injuries to a certain extent. Granted, the absence of four defenders, Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Lombaerts, Bjorn Engels and Dedryck Boyata, would hurt any team, but it's more than that. Belgium evoke harrowing memories of the England team between 2006 and 2010; overwhelming star quality, underwhelming performances and considerably less than the sum of their parts. For that, unless there is rapid improvement, manager Wilmots will carry the can.
Having partnered Jan Vertonghen with his Tottenham teammate Toby Alderweireld in Belgium's final friendly, Wilmots shuffled him back out to the left here and used Thomas Vermaelen in the middle instead. It seemed an odd move, given the pair's success together at Tottenham. But it wasn't the reason for their defeat.
There were problems up front, too, where Romelu Lukaku brought the same level of performance that brought him precisely zero goals in his last 10 games for Everton. Lukaku always seemed to make the wrong decision, the wrong run, the wrong pass. Put through by Kevin De Bruyne in the 53rd minute, he drew out Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, but clipped the ball over the bar. He was replaced to the sound of jeering with 18 minutes to go.
Whatever Wilmots said at the break must have helped. Belgium were better in the second half and piled the pressure on as the game moved into its latter stages, but it wasn't until the 83rd minute that Buffon made his first serious save. They couldn't find a way through the Italian rearguard and you suspect that this would not change even if they carried on playing until dawn. They must improve.
3. Bonucci fills the void
Italy don't have many world class superstars anymore, but they've got Bonucci and there can't be many better ball playing defenders in the world. Early in the first half, he won a header, deftly angled it 25 yards up the pitch and set Antonio Candreva clear on the right wing. How many centre-backs do that? His pass for Giaccherini's goal was even more impressive. Who needs Andrea Pirlo?
Of course, when he was needed at the back, he was there to make the vital interceptions, almost always impeccably timed. When Divock Origi broke in the 78th minute, he became the third Italian player to conclude that a yellow card was a better option than a Belgian equaliser. At 29, he's at the peak of his career. Perhaps, against all the odds, this tournament may yet define it.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.