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A solid beginning…Belgium 0-2 Italy

Whilst I have been consistent in my deflated appraisal of la nazionale in the lead up to the tournament – and perhaps offered Conte a lion share of my bitterness close to masquerading as legitimate concerns -after witnessing the opening games I was feeling more confident when the predicted line-up appeared to face Belgium.

You see, despite FIFA’s skewed ranking system, Belgium have never looked anything close to classy. Individually they have some great talents and some accomplished performers, found all through the squad. Yet I cannot recall them making a serious charge in a major competition during this same period when their collection of  ‘stars’ are vaunted as dark horses. At club level, they look solid, even world class on occasion, especially De Bruyne and Hazard. However, its a different story when they don national colours. No fight, no cohesion and hapless management prevail.

Undoubtedly a lunatic, yet so far, so good…

I remain bothered by Conte and feel he has a huge amount to learn tactically yet there is one undeniable area of management which is his forte, namely drilling his charges relentlessly, demanding hard running and imbuing throughout the squad a determination to fight to the death and to win.

Right from the off the game saw one side more eager, one side more comfortable in their positional duties, which was of course Italy. The opponents behaved as if they had never faced what Martin Keown so aptly called ‘proper defending’. Which may be right, for all but dear Radja. Who was a shadow of his Roman guise.

We should have been awarded a penalty when a tackle took out the little goblin within the box. And yet it wasn’t too long after when our former favourite opened the scoring from a sublime, yet typical Big Leo long ball from deep. Giaccherini controlled brilliantly with one touch, steadied himself and placed the ball past Courtois. It was swift, glorious and incisive.

Before half time Pelle spurned a gilt edged chance to make the game safe at 0-2, heading wide with an open goal at his mercy.

The second period saw a similar pattern of a fair amount of possession for Belgium yet very little ingenuity to match it. The Juve defensive blockade was in fine fettle. Dealing with everything, more often than not with a smile on their faces. Whilst we tired and invited our foes onto us for a period towards the end of the game, we always looked the more likely to score. And Pelle did just that with a thunderous strike, beautifully crafted by the impressive throughout Candreva, for 0-2.

Reasons to be cheerful

Candreva was superb in the 1-0 victory over Belgium

This looked like a Conte team. Everyone ran hard, fought to the death and the all important spirit was evident throughout.

No team in the tournament has yet looked amazing. The English were creating much yet finishing little. The French were strong going forward yet absent minded at set pieces. The Spanish, despite their domination, found Cech a formidable wall. Only the Germs – as always – seem the finished article, yet they often struggle against any Italian offering. I haven’t looked at how the draw for the next round could turn out, and won’t do until/unless we beat Sweden in our next game.

I am pleased to find on other news sites the nickname I gave Giaccherini many moons ago when writing elsewhere!

The Juve 3-5-2 has been transposed effectively to la nazionale, a formation which Conte knows intimately and so it seems, do the players.

Candreva was as potent a threat in the final third as any player has proven thus far.

Eder is a far craftier and more gritty player than I had realised. Pretty much adopting the old Tevez role; roaming across the final third, constantly biting at the heels of defenders and midfielders, getting stuck into melees and often coming out with a pass to a colleague when surrounded by opponents. He seemed a great foil for Pelle.

Immobile appeared spritely, full of running and was unlucky not to find glory when set through on the counter and striking on goal.

Reasons for bother

Darmian was atrocious. Di Sciglio must start the next game.

The little goblin, whilst scoring the winner, showed why we let him go. For all his berserker zeal and incredible work rate, he misplaced so many passes and was let down by his poor touch on many occasions. Still, what I admire about the player is that his head never drops, even after fluffing his lines on what appears a simple pass, his spirit never lessens. Such spirit can take us far. Its infectious, immensely valuable and worthy of the shirt.

Conclusion

I now understand Conte’s selection more thoroughly. He has chosen his system, the same which worked wonders at Juve, and chosen the nearest natural fit for each role from solely those able to run hard and long, stick to their duties and give their all. Industry over pure talent can be enough in a tournament where team-play and spirit count for more than individual talent (at least until the latter stages). The injuries to key players may turn out to be a blessing, for whilst Parolo and De Rossi seemed absent from any of our finest moves forward, they were steel throughout, both running themselves into the ground like many others of their flock.

On paper the Swedes and Irish are unlikely to trouble us, yet the boys in green had the bit between their fangs against Zlatan and company and will surely match us for determination. Thankfully we play them last, by which time…anything is possible.

Big Leo was in imperious form. Looked world class throughout…

With the strongest defence in the tournament we have a chance against anyone for we will always create a few chances. The major concern which remains is that Conte has never seemed a reactive manager. Excelling at setting his team up, forging spirit and belief and staggering fitness levels, yet outfoxed by more wily managers in crucial matches when placed a whisker away from success. The 3-5-2 is our Plan A, yet I wonder if there is any Plan B or C.

Whereas some are calling the Italian performance a master class, I will refrain from such superlatives, for we were far from spectacular, sloppy in places and were made to look better than we are by a woefully disorganised opponent.

We can only beat what is put in front of us, and there are many positives to take from the opening game of our EURO 2016 adventure. One of which is that we usually start horridly languid. Not the case at all under Conte’s command. Teams usually get better as the tournament progresses, and its important to gain momentum before facing any of the more obvious threats. The endeavour, organisation, spirit and of course the result all combine for a very encouraging beginning to a campaign many thought would be finished with a defeat in this fixture. Myself included.

Conte has looked at the possibilities, the talent on offer, chosen who he feels he can rely upon to play his way, in his system, dispensed with the rest. He may well prove a genius in discerning the limitations of the present Italian talent pool, and forging a phalanx of warriors capable of unexpected glory. All I can ask is that gli azzurri play with their hearts on their sleeves and never give up. With Conte guiding the ship, this much is guaranteed.

It was a deserved victory against a poor Belgium. Far sterner tests await if we harbour any serious ambition of reaching the final.