It only takes one chance to win a game of football, and in the end one beautiful pass was all Italy needed to take out the highly-rated Belgians in Lyon. The second goal, scored in injury time by Graziano Pelle, was icing on the cake, and the game was all but over before Pelle’s well-hit volley passed a desperate Thomas Vermaelen to find the back of the net. Belgium started the game confidently, but they were slow in attack, and their attempts to find a target inside the box were comfortably thwarted by the experienced Italian back three of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. The best chances for Belgium had come from long shots, and they came closest to scoring when Radja Nainggolan’s effort nearly found its way past Gianluigi Buffon into the bottom corner. Before the goal, the Italians defended Belgium with nonchalance, sweeping away the crosses as they came and looking completely nonplussed when faced with some of the best attacking talent in Europe.
The turning point came just after the half-hour mark, and it came from nowhere. The Belgians had been slow and ineffective, but the Italians had had less of the ball and had also been wasteful in the final third. Passes were consistently finding the red shirts of Belgium, and Italy did not appear likely to score against a Belgian team who were dominating possession. Then Bonucci set up Emanuele Giaccherini with one of the best passes of the tournament so far. From inside his own half the centre back played the ball just over the head of Toby Alderweireld, who was unable to cut it off. It landed perfectly at Giaccherini’s feet, and with a brilliant first touch the central midfielder slotted the ball past Thibaut Courtois into the bottom corner. The Belgian keeper had no chance after his defence broke down, and the Italians had the lead. Their next job was to protect it.
The goal took the momentum away from the Belgians, and suddenly Italy looked the more dangerous side. Antonio Candreva’s shot from range had to be saved by Courtois, and the resulting corner saw Pelle miss a certain goal with his head. The Belgians survived, and Kevin de Bruyne had a chance when he found the ball inside the area. He had a shot, but it was blocked by Giaccherini. It was a highlight in an otherwise poor display by the classy attacking midfielder, who was in the wrong position from the outset and looked completely lost for the whole game.
The second half started with more energy, and Romelu Lukaku should have scored shortly after the break when Belgium spread quickly on the counter-attack. Lukaku found himself behind the defence after a nice pass from de Bruyne, but he could not convert when one-on-one with Buffon. The Italian captain was in a strong position at the edge of the box, and while Lukaku’s shot went past him it missed the goals by inches. A minute later Courtois had to make a wonderful save to deny Pelle, whose close range header was destined for the bottom corner before the Belgian keeper threw out a hand to stop it. Italy needed to take the sting out of the game, and they gradually did, forcing Belgium to attack patiently and allowing their defence to take control again. They thwarted Belgium every time they tried to counter, and had plenty of players booked as a result. Chiellini just stopped short of tackling Eden Hazard to the ground as the Belgian captain tried to get away. Dries Mertens had plenty of options open for him on the break, but Eder made sure he could not pass it off. Bonucci fouled Divock Origi when the young striker found himself in a strong attacking position. Belgium were forced to try and penetrate the perfectly organised Italian defence, and while chances fell to Origi and Marouane Fellaini in the dying minutes they could not get the ball into the Italian net.
In the end, none of it mattered, as a strong Italian counter-attack was too much for the Belgian defence. Candreva found himself one-on-one, but chose to cross it to Pelle, leaving the Belgian keeper out of position. Vermaelen tried desperately to stop the shot, but, like Belgium on the night, it was never going to happen.
Parc Olympique Lyonnais – Lyon
Italy 2 (Giaccherini 32, Pelle 90+2)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)
Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois – Ciman (Carrasco 75), Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Nainggolan (Mertens 62), Witsel; de Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard; Lukaku (Origi 73).
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, de Rossi (Motta 78), Giaccherini, Darmian (de Sciglio 58); Pelle, Eder (Immobile 75).
1. Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)
Bonucci was brilliant throughout, and he was impenetrable in defence. His combination with Barzagli, Chiellini and Buffon was excellent, and when Belgium were sending crosses into the box early he was always there to block them. The pass that led to Italy’s first goal was incredible, and he had a wonderful game despite a booking for a professional foul late in the game.
2. Giorgio Chiellini (Italy)
Chiellini played a similar role to Bonucci in the centre of defence, and he made some key stops to ensure that nothing got through. He showed his experience when he fouled Eden Hazard to stop a Belgian attack, and while he was booked for the incident it did not really tarnish his individual performance. He was very good, and will hope to continue his form for the rest of the tournament.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois was at the top of his game in goal, and he kept Belgium in the game on a number of occasions after the Italians opened the scoring. He had no chance of stopping the two Italian goals, but he saved a number of excellent Italian attempts and made an incredible save to deny Graziano Pelle’s header just after half-time.
4. Graziano Pelle (Italy)
A goal in injury-time was a just reward for Pelle, who was a massive problem for the Belgian defence throughout and managed to find plenty of open space inside the box. He should have scored just after Giaccherini when his header was slightly wide, and it took a special save from Courtois to deny another header from close range. He was in good attacking positions and was very dangerous.
5. Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
The Belgian defence was not particularly cohesive throughout, but Alderweireld was able to hold everything together for the whole game. He was caught out when Italy scored their first goal, but he had a flawless second half. He was forced to take a bigger role as the game progressed, and he was able to thwart most of Italy’s counter-attacks before they came to anything.