This opening group match between Italy and Belgium was the first game between two of the “big” teams in France, with both nations fancied by a decent portion of supporters to take home the trophy in just under a month. Therefore, Italy’s disposal of Belgium was certainly a statement given Belgium were many people’s pre-tournament favourites, and of course they are the highest world ranked team in the competition.
As Rio Ferdinand pointed out after the match, Italy played with a great spirit and togetherness like a proper team, whereas Belgium played more like a bunch of individuals. Eden Hazard captains the side, and it is certainly true that their team is bursting at the seams with talent – Courtois in goal, Alderweireld and Vertonghen at the back, De Bruyne and Hazard in midfield, and topped off by the in-demand Lukaku up front.
Many are now condemning Belgium tournament failures and underachievers, but was it that Belgium played badly or Italy played well? The answer to that is a bit of both, but the Italian performance has certainly reminded people of how strong a force they can be.
In many ways, it is strange that more onlookers did not really give the Italians a chance of going all the way in France, despite them not losing a single qualification match since 2006.
The primary difference between Antonio Conte’s current team and those of the past is they are without a real superstar like Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero and Luca Toni. Their legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon remains and they have a solid defence of Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzaghli, but despite the quality of players like Eder, Antonio Candreva and Graziano Pelle, they are simply not household names.
Their performance was emphatic against Belgium, with solid defensive work and brilliant counter-attacking football coming to the fore, and all that was produced without star midfielder Marco Verratti through injury.
Emanuele Giaccherini dispatched the opening goal towards the end of the first half after a sublime ball from Leonardo Bonucci that went over the top of the entire Belgian defence. Pelle scored the second after an Italian break right at the end of the game, sealing the victory for Conte’s men.
There is undoubted quality in their ranks, and what played to their advantage the most is their entire defence and goalkeeper all play together at a high level with Serie A champions Juventus. As a result, they know each other’s game inside-out, which not only means that they all instinctively play well together, it also provides solidarity at the back as there is a distinct feeling of trust flowing between the quartet.
That provides a strong foundation, and with Daniele De Rossi sitting in front of the back three to provide extra cover and kick-start a counter-attack, there is no reason that Italy can’t be winners this summer. However, although they can win the tournament I personally don’t think they will.
After that opening group match, many will choose the serial trophy winners over Belgium to go all the way, but I believe that they are still far from being able to boast the tag of favourites. It should be either France with the home advantage and star quality such as Pogba and Payet, Spain with their relentless slick, passing football, or Germany with their undoubted quality and unbelievable winning mentality.
One thing is for sure though, Italy certainly surprised a lot of us in their opening game, and could prove to be a dark horse to life the trophy on 10th July.
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