PARIS: Italy, playing classy but intense and perfectly organised football, opened their Euro 2016 account by defeating a fading Belgium 2-0 with fine goals from Emanuele Giaccherini in the first half and Graziano Pelle at the end of the second.
A year ago and Belgium would have been among the Euro 2016 favourites but the persistent injuries to defensive stalwart and captain Vincent Kompany and the poor Premier form of Eden Hazard had seen their rating slip.
They did make the early running when Radja Nainggolan forced a sharp save from veteran Italy captain Gigi Buffon. But then Italy took over and were full value for a victory whose manner will make everyone sit up.
Giaccherini was denied a penalty by English referee Mark Clattenburg after claiming he had been tripped. But he quickly recovered his composure to shoot the Azzurri in front after a perfectly judged lob-cross from Leonardo Bonucci.
The Bologna forward might have had a second goal within minutes but his shot from the right forced a hasty save from Thibaud Courtois in the Belgian goal.
Both teams stepped up the pace after the interval with Belgium threatening to find their touch at last.
Romeo Lukaku found himself in acres of space on the left and with only Buffon to beat but, perhaps intimidated by the reputation and advance of the Italy captain, scooped his shoot wastefully over both keeper and goal.
Now it was Italy’s turn to hit back and Courtois made a fine one-handed save, diving to his right, to keep out a Pelle header.
Belgian coach Marc Wilmots, looking for something new to shake up the game, replaced Lukaku with Divock Origi. The Liverpool striker skimmed a header inches over Buffon’s bar but Belgium had to live dangerously by throwing more and more men forward in an increasingly desperate pursuit of an equaliser.
That very nearly cost them in the 84th minute. Substitute Ciro Immobile made the most of his fresh to break clear from halfway and thunder a shot at goal only for the magnificent Courtois to pull off yet another fine, one-handed save.
Courtois was helpless in the last minute, however, when Italy underlined their class – a perfect counter between Immobile and Antonio Candreva served the winning volley opportunity on a plate for Pelle.