Antonio Conte was vindicated as all of the Azzurri’s pre-tournament negativity was washed away in Lyon on Monday
It was put to Gianluigi Buffon on the eve of Italy’s Euro 2016 opener in Lyon that his ageing side could struggle to contain a Belgium side brimming with young, attacking talents. “Sometimes, you’re the hammer,” the Azzurri captain mused, “Sometimes, you’re the anvil. You’re seeing one thing on paper now. Tomorrow, though, we’ll see the real thing on the field.”
On Monday evening, before a wonderfully raucous crowd, Italy once again made a mockery of all the pre-tournament negativity surrounding their squad to defeat the highest-ranked side at Euro 2016. And deservedly so too.
Italy arrived in France without anything like the individual talent with which Belgium have been blessed after revolutionising their youth set-up. Yet although they were the anvil at times for long periods in Lyon, they were, at the end of the day, the better team. And ‘team’ is the operative word.
Antonio Conte may not have picked the squad that neutrals liked but he was only ever interested in selecting 23 players on whom he knew he could rely. The criticism that his cautious, conservative selection warranted only served to galvanise his squad, with Conte and Buffon cultivating an ‘us against them’ mentality.
As Belgium captain Eden Hazard so shrewdly observed in his post-match press conference: “When people are writing Italy off, this is when they are at their most dangerous.” It is also particularly perilous to switch off against the Azzurri, as was so thrillingly underlined by the decisive moment in the match.
In the 32nd minute of an absorbing first half, in which Italy coped quite comfortably with everything that their much-vaunted opponents threw at them, Leonardo Bonucci picked up possession in the centre circle before playing a stunning, raking pass in behind the Belgian back-line. Emanuel Giaccherini controlled it instantaneously with the most sumptuous first touch before coolly slotting the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
It was a glorious goal, immaculate in its inception and execution, though it has to be said that Toby Alderweireld’s defending had been as horrific as Bonucci’s pass perfect, with the Tottenham centre-half losing not only Giaccherini but also the flight of the ball.
Belgium were shellshocked and Italy could – and should – have doubled their advantage, with Graziano Pelle passing up an excellent opportunity to make it 2-0 when he headed wide unmarked in the area shortly before the break.
Wilmots tried to change things up in the second half, even replacing midfielder Radja Nainggolan with winger Dries Mertens, as Belgium went for broke. And the Red Devils should have drawn level when Kevin De Bruyne put Romelu Lukaku clean through on goal only for the Everton striker to blaze over both Buffon and the bar.
However, Italy also had further opportunities to extend their lead and they belatedly did so in the dying seconds when Pelle crashed home Antonio Candreva’s cross. At that very moment, it was impossible not to conclude that if Conte had anything like the talent that Wilmots has at his disposal, this game would have been wrapped up long before then.
Indeed, for Conte, this was a night of victory and vindication, both of his squad selection and his tactical approach. He had gotten the very best out of his team. The same could most definitely not be said of the man in the opposing dug-out.
At the full-time whistle, Italy’s players joined hands and ran towards the right-hand side of the pitch in a show of solidarity with their supporters. To the left, beleaguered Belgian players drifted sheepishly towards their fans in drips and drabs, while others trudged straight for their tunnel. It offered a nice illustration of the difference between these two squads: Italy united to the end; Belgium broken, as if hit by a hammer.