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Brilliant back three deny Devils: How Stats Zone saw Belgium 0-2 Italy

If you'd read the pre-tournament blurb, Antonio Conte was perhaps the best manager at Euro 2016 – but his team most certainly weren't. What he had was probably the best defensive unit in the world at his disposal, with Some More Players just ahead of them. 

Perhaps that's all they'll need, though. Italy lined up with the Euros' oldest-ever starting XI (31 years, 169 days) but it was that experience which saw them through against a hyped-up Belgium side that still looks weaker than the sum of its parts with a manager few in the country seem to respect. Gigi Buffon wasn't overly troubled in Lyon, but the magnificant Giorgio Chielleni, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli in front of him made it so.

In the end it was Sunderland reject Emanuele Giaccherini who proved the unlikely hero, taking down Bonucci's brilliant first-half pass beautifully and finishing past Thibaut Courtois (below). Graziano Pelle added a second in injury time to seal all three points and send the Azzurri top after one game. 

Italy started the match brighter; there was much more energy to their play, and they were the ones weaving together the game's better moves. Belgium offered the first signs of goal threat through Radja Nainggolan, however – but what they didn't know then was that these sorts of efforts from range would be all too common.

#BEL 0-0 #ITA Busy start for Nainggolan who has twice tried his luck from distance after being teed up by Fellaini

— Stats Zone (@StatsZone) June 13, 2016

Conte's side then broke the deadlock on 32 minutes through Giaccherini.

GOAL #ITA! *That* ball from Bonucci Giaccherini takes it down superbly and finishes to put Conte's side ahead

— Stats Zone (@StatsZone) June 13, 2016

The game began to play into Italy's hands: their organisation made it incredibly difficult for Belgium to break lines, and Marc Wilmots' side toiled in trying to find a way through. Subsequently, they bragged the lion's share of possession but hadn't done much with it at all – note the high volume of passes in ineffectual midfield areas. 

#BEL 0-1 #ITA Belgium's passing has been very concentrated in safe areas. Away from countering they're lacking ideas

— Stats Zone (@StatsZone) June 13, 2016

Approaching half-time, Marouane Fellaini had created five chances for his team-mates – good on paper, maybe, but misleading. Looking at where Belgium actually took those 'chances' from paints a picture of struggle: they couldn't get into the box. When Mark Clattenburg blew his whistle the shot count read 8-6 in Belgium's favour; two on target apiece. But in reality, Italy should have buried that second one when Pelle nodded a fine chance wide.  

Wilmots' team improved after the break, but not by much. Romelu Lukaku had cut a frustrated figure against Italy's formidable three-man backline, but his troubled evening was made 10 times worse when he squandered his and Belgium's best chance of the game. It was a flash of what Belgium might be capable of on the counter-attack in France, though – they've arguably got the tools to be the tournament's best side on the break with Kevin De Bruyne in particular, who was also poor here. 

As the game wore, Italy's 'professionalism' came through. They'd fouled willfully in safe areas around the centre circle all game, but upped it in the latter stages at Belgium tried to turn the screw. They picked up four bookings in the last 25 minutes, summed up by Eder's hysterically cynical hauling down of sub Dries Mertens, followed by him booting the ball away safe in the knowledge his yellow card was firmly secured. 

#BEL 0-1 #ITA Italy perfectly happy to give away those kinds of fouls on the halfway line (black triangles) all game

— Stats Zone (@StatsZone) June 13, 2016

It did the job, anyway – with virtually the last kick of the game, Italy broke forward and Candreva clipped in a cross that Pelle hammered home on the volley. Job done, three points secured – and very well earned they were too.

GOAL #ITA! Pelle makes the points safe with a thumping volley from Candreva's dinked ball into the box. Italy go top

— Stats Zone (@StatsZone) June 13, 2016

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