LYON, France — Goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle combined with excellent defending helped Italy to a 2-0 win over Belgium in their first match at the European Championship on Monday.
Described as one of the worst Squadra Azzurra ever by Italian media, Antonio Conte’s aging team defied the odds to take the lead in Group E with an impressive collective display at Lyon’s Grand Stade.
Ireland opened its campaign with a 1-1 draw against Sweden in the group’s other game Monday.
Giaccherini scored the opener with his first goal for Italy since 2013 from a spectacular long ball by Leonardo Bonucci. Pelle made it 2-0 in added time with a well-struck volley after a counterattack.
The early stages had none of that sparkle, with Belgium’s Premier League players enjoying most of the possession but struggling to get past Italy’s experienced three-man backline of Juventus defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli.
A fine move led to Belgium’s first shot on goal after 10 minutes. Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan forced keeper Gianluigi Buffon to make a good save with a dipping shot from outside the box after Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini had combined well to knock the ball into his path.
But the move was the only major threat from Marc Wilmots’ players, who moved the ball around well, but lacked width and any real bite in the final third.
When Italy tried to push forward, the Azzurri gave the ball away too easily when trying to find Pelle.
The 2006 world champions finally broke the deadlock in the 32nd minute when Bonucci found Giaccherini inside the Belgium area with a lofted 40-meter ball over the defense. Giaccherini controlled it with a fine touch and curled his shot past Thibaut Courtois.
Italy soon looked to build some momentum, with Antonio Candreva forcing Courtois into a save and Pelle wasting a golden chance immediately afterward, missing the target with a header while alone in front of goal.
Missing injured captain Vincent Kompany and regular starter Nicolas Lombaerts, the Belgium defense continued to show signs of weakness. Jan Verthongen shouted at his teammates after another Italy foray down the right side.
Up front, Lukaku looked uncomfortable throughout the game and missed a clear cut chance after Kevin De Bruyne picked him out with a fine pass. Courtois kept Belgium in the match with a reflex save to deny Pelle’s header from close range in the 57th minute.
Lukaku was whistled off the pitch when replaced by Divock Origi in the 73rd minute, but the Liverpool player failed at the crucial moment, heading the ball over from De Bruyne’s free kick with eight minutes left.
The match ended with a frantic finish, with Pelle volleying home in stoppage time from Candreva’s cross.