Italy came into Euro 2016 not billed as one of the favourites for the tournament and understandably so. With an ageing backline, shone of the presence of midfield aces like Riccardo Montolivo, Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti and devoid of a star-studded frontline like yesteryear, this is not among the strongest squads the Azzurri have fielded in an international completion in recent times. However, if their opening display against hotshots Belgium is anything to go by, the Italians still possess the characteristic tactical brilliance to make up for their lack of quality against any opponent.

Indeed, Antonio Conte’s men pulled off a tactical masterclass that saw the Belgians not only knocked off their stride but also floundering for answers. This was a performance built on the bedrock of a solid defence, marshalled in no small part by legendary shot-stopper Gianluigi Buffon.

Gianluigi Buffon didn’t have much to do in goal but his leadership skills came to the fore.( Picture Courtesy -UEFA) 

Very few sides in modern football have the nous to effectively use the 3-5-2 formation and the Italians are one of them. Here, the two wing-backs in Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva were tireless bundles of energy as they provided quality from the wide areas, but also got up and down the wings to keep tabs on Belgium’s flanks. Meanwhile, the three veteran centre-backs in Andrea Barzagli , Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini formed a formidable wall in front of Buffon, while the steel in the middle of the park came from experienced strongman Daniele De Rossi. It is worth mentioning that the seamless understanding between the back four was no doubt helped by the fact that all of them play for the same club, Turin giants Juventus.

Leonardo Bonucci had assured presence at the back for Italy and here he holds off Eden Hazard.( Picture Courtesy -UEFA) 

This was in many ways a typical Italian performance, consisting of fortitude as well as remarkable intelligence and game sense. In the first half Gli Azzurri let Belgium have the ball and used their wing-backs to launch rapid counter-attacks. This tactic paid rich dividends as Emanuele Giaccherini slotted in the opener on 32 minutes. However, once they had the lead they were back to doing what they do best, as they kept the ball asking their opponents to make all the play in search of that elusive equalizer. They also didn’t have any qualms about resorting to tactical fouls in order to stunt the flow of the game and turn it into a stop-start affair.

Antonio Conte executed his plan very well ( Picture Courtesy -UEFA) 

One of the key takeaways from the game was Conte’s success in greatly inhibiting the creative influence of Belgium’s star-studded midfield and attack. Italy did so by using their central defenders to play a narrow shape without the ball. By flooding midfield they allowed the opposition to have the ball until the final third and even to get crosses into the box, banking on the stoppers to deal with everything that was thrown at them. Meanwhile, Darmian and Candreva delivered exceptional performances in their dual shifts in attack and defence, thereby dominating the wings. This meant that not only was Belgium’s lone frontman Romelu Lalukau kept under wraps, but with influential players like Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne effectively neutralized, his supply was cut off too.

These tactics combined to form a perfect gameplan that saw the much-fancied Belgians unable to find their usual rhythm leading to a disjointed performance characterized by misplaced passes and carelessness in possession, culminating in an Impressive 0-2 win for Conte’s charges.

They may not have one of the strongest squads on paper, but Italy have shown they still possess the character that has defined the Azzuuri’s squads for generations and as last night’s performance proved, on the big occasion and with the deck seemingly stacked against them, their sheer desire for victory remains a cut above the rest. Although, this performance alone is not enough to class them as genuine title contenders, the men from Rome have served noticed that they are not in France merely to make up the numbers.

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Editorial by Khel Now-Content Editor Mrunal Nakashe. A sports buff, he’s also a foreign policy enthusiast and keen North Korea watcher. Mrunal loves gaming, reading, traveling and is a self-confessed Football Manager addict. You can follow him on Twitter.