Italy stunned the much-fancied Belgian national team with a stubborn yet stylish display to prevail in their European Championship opener at the Stade de Lyon. Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle netted a goal in either half, as the 1968 European Championship winners began their campaign with a typically bullish and ominous showing.
The same could not be said of Marc Wilmots' Red Devils, however, who despite being the number one ranked team in Europe continue to falter in decisive major tournaments, despite having a squad primarily formed of top players who are currently playing in the English Premier League. Romelu Lukaku struggled for long periods and had the best chance to equalise but his effort sailed wide of goal.
Antonio Conte's side's victory could have been even more handsome had Pelle scored from headers in either half, nodding wide from seven yards before seeing Thibaut Courtois produced a terrific stop to keep out his glanced effort. It matters little, however, as the runners-up from 2012 got off to a winning start, to leave the highly-regarded Belgium sitting rock bottom of Group E.
After Republic of Ireland were held by Sweden, Belgium and Italy knew victory would put one foot in the last 16 and see them take an early group lead on the penultimate day of round one matches at Euro 2016. Belgium began with Laurent Ciman at full-back, as Toby Alderweireld moved to centre-back, while for Italy, Southampton's Pelle led the attack alongside Eder.
Among the features of the opening matches has been fast-paced starts, and the first game in Lyon was no different with Belgium's exciting attacking players and Italy's rampaging wing-backs contributing to an entertaining start, though not one littered the game with chances. Radja Nainggolan struck twice from long range, the first stunning the hands of Gianluigi Buffon before the second was tamely pushed wide.
But there was nothing tame about the manner in which the deadlock was broken, as Giaccherini escaped the attention of Alderweireld, collecting Bonucci's superb long pass and tucking beyond Courtois with aplomb. It rewarded a solid Italian performance in the first half which was littered with intensive pressing and verve in the final third.
There was initially no answer to Conte's Belgium team, who were greater than the sum of their individual parts, as Lukaku and Eden Hazard were left on the peripheral of the game with their movement failing to inspire Wilmots and his men. The Azzuri should have punished their lacklustre display with a second goal early on, but Pelle headed inexplicably wide from seven yards.
Belgium were vastly improved after the break and should have levelled when Kevin de Bruyne played in Lukaku, who after a heavy first touch skied his effort wide of Buffon's goal. Italy in turn almost doubled but Courtois produced a fine save to his right to keep out Pelle's glancing header as the game recapture its pace from the opening 45 minutes.
Dries Mertens was followed by Divock Origi and Yannick Carrasco in being thrown on by Wilmots, who was quickly running out of ideas as the Italian defence continue to hold firm. It was the Liverpool forward who would have the best opportunities to grab a point as he flicked over before failing to make contact from point blank range.
And as Belgium continued to pile players forward they were caught on the break in the third minute of stoppage time. Candreva pulled the ball back and with Courtois helpless, Pelle volleyed home emphatically, with his goal sparking scenes of wild jubilation from fans - and players - alike.