Never mind from zero to hero, Emanuele Giaccherini transformed himself from the worst player in the worst ever Italy team to a goalscoring hero on Monday, as Antonio Conte edged his tactical sparring match with Marc Wilmots.
On loan at Bologna from relegation battlers Sunderland last season, the midfielder was the embodiment of the Azzurri’s lack of quality, a major pre-tournament talking point on the peninsula and elsewhere, as Belgium dominated the opening 30 minutes at Stade de Lyon.
Missing the injured Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, and without Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco, who were overlooked for taking the easy option of playing in MLS, Italy struggled to match Radja Nainggolan, Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini in the crunch Group E clash.
Indeed, it was only Belgium’s bluntness and the water-tight all-Juventus rearguard of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci that helped Conte’s men remain relatively comfortable as they struggled to emerge from their own half.
But just as social media and perhaps the whole of Italy – back home and in the stands – hurled every insult imaginable at Giaccherini, the 31-year-old delivered, with a little help from an unexpected source.
Step forward Bonucci, who played the best pass of the competition so far to beat Toby Alderweireld and find Giaccherini.
The midfielder shrugged off his poor game to control the ball with a perfect first touch and then dispatched a cool finish to beat the helpless Thibaut Courtois.
The goal helped Conte emerge victorious from a fascinating battle of wills with opposite number Wilmots – as if the former Juve boss would ever have been the one to blink first.
While all eyes were on Wilmots’ solution to his defensive injury crisis, it was further forward where the coach, whose strategic quality has been justifiably questioned, initially floundered.
Deploying Fellaini in the hole allowed the Manchester United player to win plenty of aerial duels and second balls, but Kevin De Bruyne was wasted in a wide right role and Romelu Lukaku suffered without a proper number 10 behind him.
It is perhaps a damning indictment of Wilmots that one of the Premier League’s deadliest strikers was not better served by two of the league’s most creative attacking midfielders.
To his credit, the Belgium boss did eventually change it, moving to 4-2-3-1 after the hour mark and sending Hazard into the centre. He succeeded in wresting back control of the game but it was too late to force the equaliser against an Azzurri who were creaking in the closing stages.
Conte meanwhile can consider himself justified in ignoring the demands to recall Pirlo and Giovinco, preferring the work-rate and tactical discipline of their less vaunted compatriots.
Matteo Darmian in particular, withdrawn after an hour for Mattia De Sciglio, ran himself into the ground playing as both left-back and left winger in the coach’s highly fluid formation, which switched from 3-5-2 to 3-3-4 to 4-4-2 frequently throughout the game.
And if there were any worries for the Azzurri about a lack of threat up front, they were calmed in injury time when Graziano Pelle capped off an incisive break with a stunning finish at the back post to make the game safe.
Relying on defence and winning narrowly has never worried Italy or Conte and do not bet against them doing it a few more times in France, as they seek to defy predictions the country’s demise as a football power would be confirmed at Euro 2016.
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