Many references to Italy's World Cup win 10 years ago are met with comments about how far the team has fallen since then. Despite making the final at the last European Championships, they crashed and burned at both World Cups since winning the title. The team's current group of attackers had many doubters; the five strikers Antonio Conte brought to France had a combined 11 goals for their country coming into Monday's game. Italy were not supposed to beat Belgium, labeled the dark horses of the tournament. But they did exactly that, 2-0, and in very convincing fashion.
The stars of the show were the staunch Italian defense, a trio of defenders and a goalkeeper who all ply their club trade for Juventus. Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini were the personification of the rigid defense Italians are known for, keeping chances from the powerful Belgian attack limited to just three shots on target from a total of 18. Buffon made three saves and showed no signs of his 38 years of age.
Bonucci himself had the strongest performance of any of his teammates on the night. Defensively, he was essential to the success of the Italians, making seven clearances and four interceptions. The icing on the cake, though, was his assist on Emanuele Giaccherini's first-half goal. Standing in the center circle, Bonucci made a pass with such precision that it met Giaccherini in the penalty area for the midfielder to make the cool finish.
Stunning assist from Bonucci for Giaccherini's goal. One of the finest ball-playing centre-backs of the last decade pic.twitter.com/h6HruXlab2— Max Bentley (@MaxBentley1) June 13, 2016
The goalscorer could not be more surprising. Over the last few years, Giaccherini has performed poorly for club and country, leaving many to believe he should not have been in France in the first place. Yet, he managed a strong performance against a Belgian side stacked with talent. His passing accuracy was at a high 81 percent, and he took advantage of the one shot he had as he bolstered the Italian attack.
As for the ones who played in front of Giaccherini, Graziano Pellè and Éder, with question marks surrounding their abilities to lead the Italian attack, they matched up well as they wreaked havoc on the makeshift Belgian defense. Pellè managed the stronger match of the two, taking five shots, two of which were on target. In addition to the two key passes he made, the Southampton forward scored a goal in stoppage time that ensured his team would record three points to begin their Euro 2016 campaign.
Though the Italians didn't post impressive possession or shot numbers, the score wasn't just about luck or who was more clinical. Their shots were of a higher quality than their opponent's.
xG map for #BEL-#ITA. While #ITA were hardly invulnerable, the contrast in tactical quality was incredible. pic.twitter.com/vnhLZwKCuZ— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) June 13, 2016
Their strong beginning to the match against a sluggish Belgium made this Italy team look like true competitors for the title of champions of Europe, which is in stark contrast from what was expected of them before their tournament started. In fact, perhaps they are more of a dark horse than their opponent today. They're creating high-quality chances and the chemistry of their back four appears to be invaluable. If there is one thing to take away from today, it's this -- do not count the Italians out.