As the first round of group games draw to a close, only one major contender so far will be truly pleased with their opening game. The Italians surprised many and impressed everyone with their convincing 2-0 win over Belgium on Monday evening. However it was the style of victory that differentiated them from their main contenders for the trophy.
Before Monday night’s events, the European Championships so far had treated us to many games with a similar story. Favourites suffocating their opponents of possession, playing with a slow tempo and dictating play, whilst not creating too many notable clear-cut chances. However Antonio Conte’s side showed us that it is possible to dominate a game without controlling possession. They were incisive, positive and looked a genuine goal scoring threat every time they won possession. France and Spain take note.
A quick look at the possession statistics from the opening games tells its own story. France had 64% of the ball in their win over Romania, Germany had 68%, and Spain an incredible 72% in their late win over the Czech Republic. Undoubtedly playing Belgium was a factor, as the Belgians set out to control possession themselves, however it also renders Italy’s attacking display even more impressive. They had no problem cutting through the Belgian defence at times, and Pelle could have easily have been completing his hat-trick when he slammed in Italy’s second in injury time were it not for some sublime goalkeeping and a glaring miss. The pace at which the Azzurri transitioned from defence into attack allowed for their forwards to receive the ball in space, and against fewer defenders, meaning they were able to create far more chances of note than their opponents.
Belgium’s lethargic and laboured performance cannot go unmentioned however. Often labelled ‘a team of individuals’, they have never shown it more than on Monday night. When Belgium won the ball, their immediate instinct was to look for the safe option and retain possession, meaning the Italians had time to reorganise their defence and get into shape. This greatly limited the amount of chances they had to attack just Italy’s defenders, and their cause was not helped when the few chances they created were squandered by their misfiring forwards. Only Eden Hazard looked up for the task, and at least tried to offer something different in beating defenders and driving at the Italian defence. Wilmot’s choice to start without a number 10 in the lineup, and go with the trio of Fellaini, Witsel and Nainggolan in midfield played into Italy’s hands. Belgium controlled the majority of possession but were often outnumbered in attack, and lacked any incisive forward runs from their midfield.
Going into the tournament this Italian side was labelled by some as the worst in 50 years. Problems such as injuries to key midfielders such as Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio were cited, as well as the absence of the majestic but now 37 year old Andrea Pirlo and the lack of an in form and dangerous centre forward. Recent history suggests that Italy blow either hot or cold in major tournaments. Their impressive run to the final of Euro 2012 was sandwiched in between two disastrous World Cup campaigns, in which they crashed out in the group.
Although these are early days yet, Monday’s performance would suggest this is more likely to be one of Italy’s better tournaments. With William Hill Euro 2016 offering odds of 10/1 for Italy to win the competition outright – they might be worth a punt.