Impressive Italy beats Belgium 2-0 at Euro 2016
LYON, France (AP) The jubilant scenes were reminiscent of Italy's triumph at the 2006 World Cup after the final whistle in Lyon on Monday night.
Ten years after its last World Cup success, the Squadra Azzurra had just beaten Belgium 2-0 in its first match at the European Championship. And there was plenty to celebrate for an aging team that was written off by its critics before the game and described as one of the worst ever by Italian media.
Italy's substitutes surged onto the pitch to celebrate, while veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon ran the length of the field shouting as the song ''Seven Nation Army'' - the team's unofficial anthem since the 2006 World Cup - blared out of the stadium's speakers.
''We did really well to prepare this game so well and prove all the critics wrong, because the critics were all against us,'' said Italy coach Antonio Conte, who got a bloody nose in the celebrations that followed Emanuele Giaccherini's first-half opener.
''But this is the beauty of football. You get the chance to prove people wrong, if you have the determination and will to work like we have.''
Another goal in stoppage time from Graziano Pelle, combined with excellent defending, helped Italy to its resounding win over one of the tournament favorites.
Victory against the odds also sent Italy to the top of Group E, after Ireland opened its campaign with a 1-1 draw against Sweden in the earlier game.
''Our players understood that they needed to do extraordinary things to make sure they are talked about,'' Conte said.
''The players in my group are clever, they understood that we have achieved something important with that win. But they also know we need to give more than 100 percent to continue in this tournament.''
Fielding a team with top Premier League players including Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, Belgium dominated the early stages but was made to pay for the errors of a makeshift defense and a lack of finishing up front.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who kept Belgium in the match until the very end with a series of saves, said Italy ''outclassed us tactically.''
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots was also aware of his team's shortcomings, but tried to be upbeat.
''We paid cash for our errors. And we can't win matches if we don't convert our chances,'' Wilmots said. ''But it's not finished, we've got two matches left to reach the round of 16.''
Belgium enjoyed most of the possession in the early stages but struggled to get past Italy's experienced three-man backline of Juventus defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli.
With the caps they earned on Monday, the three now have a total of 200 appearances for Italy.
''Our defense was fantastic and I think we have the best defense at the Euros,'' Giaccherini said. ''We all had to help each other and to try, when we had the ball, to hurt them.''
A fine move led to Belgium's first shot on goal after 10 minutes. Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan forced Buffon to make a save with a dipping shot from outside the box after Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini had combined well to knock the ball into his path.
But the move was the only major threat from Wilmots' players, who moved the ball around well, but lacked width and any real bite in the final third.
When Italy tried to push forward, the Azzurri gave the ball away too easily when trying to find Pelle.
The deadlock was finally broken in the 32nd minute when Bonucci found Giaccherini inside the Belgium area with a lofted 40-meter ball over the defense. Giaccherini controlled it with a fine touch and curled his shot past Courtois.
Italy soon looked to build some momentum, with Antonio Candreva forcing Courtois into a save and Pelle wasting a golden chance immediately afterward, missing the target with a header while alone in front of goal.
Missing injured captain Vincent Kompany and regular starter Nicolas Lombaerts, the Belgium defense continued to show signs of weakness.
Up front, Lukaku looked uncomfortable throughout the game and missed a clear chance after De Bruyne picked him out with a fine pass. At the other end, Courtois produced a reflex save to deny Pelle's header from close range in the 57th minute.
Lukaku was whistled off the pitch when replaced by Divock Origi in the 73rd minute. However, the Liverpool player failed at the crucial moment, heading the ball over from De Bruyne's free kick with eight minutes left.
The match ended with a frantic finish, with Pelle volleying home in stoppage time from Candreva's cross.