Italy show their class with win over Belgium
Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle got Italy off to a winning start with stunning goals to sink fellow Group E heavyweights Belgium 2-0.
Giaccherini has hardly set the world alight in three years at Sunderland - and spent last season on loan at Serie A Bologna - but he ignited Italy’s Euro 2016 challenge with a superb strike.
The winger coolly despatched a sublime ball over the top from Leonardo Bonucci in the first half, and Pelle volleyed a second in stoppage time to settle the eagerly-anticipated clash. Belgium’s big names failed to spark for much of the game, with Romelu Lukaku missing their best chance before he was substituted with 20 minutes remaining.
Belgium at least looked like they could be threatening in the opening skirmishes with Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan’s fierce drive forcing a fine save from 38-year-old Italian Gianluigi Buffon.
But the Italians made the breakthrough in the 32nd minute when Leonardo Bonucci carved open the Belgium defence with a lofted ball from the halfway line.
Giaccherini peeled away from his marker, took one touch with his left foot and clinically tucked the ball past Thibaut Courtois with his right.
With Belgium’s defence suddenly all over the place Courtois had to beat away a fierce drive from Antonio Candreva before Pelle planted a free header wide from a corner with the goal gaping.
Belgium were surprisingly flat for most of the first half with Lukaku barely getting a kick and Kevin de Bruyne unable to get into the game. Although Eden Hazard occasionally looked dangerous, he could not do it on his own.
But shortly after half-time De Bruyne finally came to life with a brilliant crossfield ball to Lukaku. However, the Everton striker’s first touch took him away from goal and as he lifted his shot over the advancing Buffon the ball curled across goal and wide. Courtois then kept Belgium in the game with a stunning one-handed save to repel a powerful close-range header from Pelle.
Lukaku’s disappointing evening was brought to an end with Divock Origi summoned from the bench, and the Liverpool youngster had a chance to equalise with nine minutes remaining - but headed De Bruyne’s cross over the crossbar.
Belgium’s night was summed up a minute from time when Dries Mertens crossed into the area, Origi completely missed with an attempted header and the ball ricocheted between Marouane Fellaini’s legs before somehow ending up in the hands of Buffon.
And moments later Italy broke forward with Candreva crossing for Pelle to thump in a volley and make it 2-0, sparking wild celebrations from Italy.