Euro 2016 has kicked off and so far there have been few surprises. Both Spain and Italy, the finalists in Ukraine four years ago, got off to impressive winning starts against good opposition, while England self-exploded on the pitch against Russia and, in the same time-honoured fashion, took part in ugly off-the-field fighting.
Ireland, meanwhile, recorded yet another 1-1 draw in a major football tournament, though they will look to Saturday’s game with rightful confidence.
Undoubtedly, from the fist round of fixtures it was Italy who shone brightest. Up against a Belgium team ranked 2nd in the world; they produced an industrious and impressive display to rightly take the three points and the top spot in their group.
Theirs was a performance for the ages really, it was a classic Italian job – strict defensive set-up, industrious workers in midfield, and enough clout in the forward ranks to punish Belgium.
When not in possession, they folded into a rigid 5-2-3 formation, pressing quick and forcing the Belgians into the centre where they were routinely rebuffed or made shoot from improbable distances.
Showing wily experience, the Italians were unafraid to pick up yellow cards if it meant stopping their opponents gaining any sort of momentum when a break looked on. Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Thiago Motta and Eder – the latter instantly substituted afterwards – all picked up cautions in a streetwise second half display.
Despite being without the services of the injured Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, Italy looked dangerous going forward and should have brought a two-nil lead into the break had Graziano Pellè not missed a sitter after being teed up by Marco Parolo.
Their second goal came, deservedly too, deep into stoppage time when Pelle made amends with a thunderous volley. Indeed, in Pelle, Italy possess a rarity among European football – an out and out, old school centre forward.
With the look of a team that will grind out results, even against teams of such supposed quality like Belgium, Italy appear a real contender for the title.
Chelsea fans will be pleased too of course, given Italy are managed by soon-to-be Blues’ coach Antonio Conte. Looking assured of an appearance in the last 16, given that they face Sweden and Ireland in their final two group games, the Italians will be confidently eyeing up a second consecutive appearance in the final at a European Championships.
Should they see off the Swedes in their next game, maybe they could rest a few players before their encounter with the Irish!