Euro 2016

Win vindicates conte 'alchemy'

Victory against Belgium a collective triumph for Italy boss and has clear echoes for Chelsea

LYON • Ridiculed and vilified before a ball had been kicked; resolute and victorious once the games begin. Italy, we have been here before.

The Azzurri achieved what many back home had claimed was beyond them to illuminate football's European Championship with a clinical, spirited and tactically superb 2-0 victory over Belgium on Monday.

The team ranked second in the world remain an unequal sum of their parts.

Italy dismantled not only the preconceptions but also Belgium as an attacking and defensive unit.

The Azzurri defended with intelligence, strength and the occasional tactical foul, seized their clearest chances and worked ferociously for each other.

There was no clearer illustration of the unity running through the team than when Graziano Pelle sealed the win in stoppage time and 38-year-old Gianluigi Buffon sprinted the length of the pitch to pile into the celebrations.

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    For Sunderland and Southampton, whose players, Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle, provided Italy's goals.

Southampton completed the victory and Sunderland started it, though supporters at the Stadium of Light would have been hard-pressed to recognise the Emanuele Giaccherini who disappointed for their club but excelled with the opening goal in Lyon.

It was a triumph of organisation for Chelsea's manager-in-waiting, Antonio Conte.

But it was another ordeal for Marc Wilmots. The Belgium coach was booed for his substitutions and again at the final whistle.

In contrast to Conte, he continues to oversee underwhelming displays on the international stage and resorted to singling out Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku for ineffective displays.

His focus on individuals was telling. Belgium performed like a collection of them, Italy as a collective, and were thoroughly deserving of victory in the game of the competition thus far.

"I've been saying from the start and I don't tell lies - this is a squad of men and of good footballers," said Conte. "In competitions like this, it is right you have this alchemy between players who enjoy being together and the best thing for me tonight was how everyone got involved.

"That said, we need to be happy tonight and then prepare for Sweden because two years ago (at the World Cup in Brazil) we won the first game with an excellent performance (against England) but went out in the group stage. These memories burn me and the supporters."

Italy's coach had seemingly inherited the least distinguished squad in the Azzurri's history but there was little evidence to support that damning assessment in Lyon.

Their game plan unfolded to perfection as they frustrated and stifled Belgium as a creative or aerial force. Conte could not resist a dig at those who had written off his players.

"I don't think a single game can completely change people's assessments," he said. "Because that would mean those people giving the assessments know nothing at all about football. Two years ago is still an open wound."

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE-FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2016, with the headline 'Win vindicates conte 'alchemy''. Print Edition | Subscribe