Pelle rounds off Italian masterclass to stun Belgium
Belgium 0-2 Italy
Published 14/06/2016 | 02:30
This was supposed to be a contest between youth and ambition against age and guile. Despite all of the pre-tournament predictions that this would be Belgium's year, age and guile in a familiar form won out.
This was supposed to be the worst Italian side that had ever been sent to a major tournament facing a Belgian side that might have been the very best they have ever taken to a championship.
It was perhaps not a surprise that, given the offer of managing Chelsea, Antonio Conte decided to take his leave of Italy once the European Championship was done.
Nevertheless, the thirty-something Emmanuele Giaccherini, who failed to make any kind of impression at Sunderland, scored the decisive goal, and Graziano Pelle, who has enjoyed rather more success with Southampton, volleyed home with brutal finality to seal the match with its last kick.
Belgium manager Marc Wilmots had remarked before the game that, however derided and underestimated the Italians were, they were never more dangerous than when their backs were jammed against the wall.
Wilmots was more right than he knew and the question will be how this young Belgium side recovers from a shattering defeat that leaves one of the favourites at the bottom of the closest thing Euro 2016 has to a group of death.
The opening goal was made by a wonderful ball delivered from near the halfway line by Leonardo Bonucci that skimmed just over the top of Toby Alderweireld's head and was controlled beautifully by Emanuele Giaccherini, who clipped his shot past Thibaut Courtois.
In the second half Kevin de Bruyne produced a similar kind of ball for Romelu Lukaku but the Everton striker's shot was screwed wide.
Giaccherini is still on Sunderland's books, having joined the club in 2013 under the brief, disastrous stewardship of Paolo di Canio. Lyon's Stade des Lumieres is one of three European stadiums that is called 'The Stadium of Light' and Giaccherini finished with more style than he ever did at the one on the north bank of the Wear.
The celebrations with the Italy bench were so intense that Conte suffered a cut lip. The damage done to Belgium by Giaccherini was a far deeper wound.
The 31-year-old had spent last season on loan at Bologna and was recalled by the Azzurri on the strength of seven goals in 28 Serie A games. Before the tournament Sunderland, who paid £6m for him, were quoting Torino a £2m fee for a permanent move. That price may have risen.
Italy now had the game by the throat but they did not quite make the kill. Antonio Candreva spun and shot, forcing Courtois to scramble the ball away for a corner. The dead ball was not properly cleared, presenting Pelle with a free, close-range header he somehow contrived to miss.
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Belgium had their moments but couldn't really trouble Gianluigi Buffon who, at 38, became the first European footballer to take part in eight consecutive major tournaments. He and his three centre-backs, all from Juventus, had come through these pressure situations many times before.
When Marouane Fellaini sent De Bruyne though just before the interval, he was blocked by a fabulous interception by Giaccherini. He never did too much of that at Sunderland either.
The classic Italian sucker punch arrived when they broke away in superb style when Ciro Immobile broke away and played an intelligent pass towards Antonio Candreva.
His first touch wasn't perfect, however, he refused to panic and picked out Pelle at the back post who drilled in a volley for what was a worthy exclamation mark on a dominant display.
Independent News Service