Italy vs. Belgium. Team vs. individuals. System vs. freedom. Chelsea head coach vs. Chelsea biggest star. In the battle of narratives, it was Antonio Conte who came out the clear winner on Monday night in Lyon. Italy's 2-0 win over Belgium may not have been heavy on fun, but it was fascinating, instructive, and promising not just for the Azzurri's Euro 2016 but for Chelsea next season.
While Belgium improved after the half, the first half was vintage narrative confirmation from Italy. Conte's men — missing important players like Verratti and Marchisio through injury and playing without a capable center forward (Pellè could've/should've had two more goals) — were well drilled, had a clear and effective tactical plan, and kept Belgium's danger-men quiet for the vast majority of the day. Bonucci's Pirlo-esque (or is it David Luiz-esque?) ball from the center circle to Giaccherini was jawdropping, the little man's finish was almost as good past Courtois. Giaccherini's inclusion in the squad was questioned by many, his starting spot questioned by even more, but he made key contributions at both ends as the
flying wingback box-to-box left-sided midfielder of the 3-5-2.
Antonio Candreva did much the same on the right, and provided the assist for Italy's second in added-on time. Both men have been linked with Chelsea and while those rumors sound underwhelming, they make much more sense in this context. Given Chelsea's current personnel, a 3-5-2 would be surprising, but perhaps that's exactly why these rumors are popping up.
For Belgium, the reliance on Fellaini to create chances remains a weird tactical wrinkle. Once Hazard was allowed to operate more centrally, Belgium looked much better, though their best chances still came on the rare occasions that Italy were exposed on the counter. Yet only once did they actually manage to get a shot off (Lukaku with a huge miss), the other times Italy just fouled Hazard, took the yellow card, and got on with the master plan.
For both Courtois and Hazard, all this would've been strangely familiar: a defense regularly at sixes and sevens and a team that relies on Hazard having to create for himself and for everyone else. Courtois came up with a couple big stops (on Pellè and, later, on Immobile on a counter), but De Bruyne was quiet, Nainggolan had a couple long-range pops, and that was that. Belgium tried to engineer a push as time wore down, Origi, Mertens, Carrasco were all positive changes from Wilmots, but Italy stood firm.
Antonio Conte, as he's said several times, lived the whole game alongside his men, shouting, gesturing, urging his men forward, yelling at them to get back, from the first minute to the last. He even got a bloody lip/nose for his exuberant celebrations. Hashtag-passion.