BRUSSELS: Marseille striker Michy Batshuayi put the finishing touches on a superb Belgium display as the world No.1-ranked team outclassed Italy 3-1 in Brussels on Friday (Saturday in Manila).
The match that will be remembered for its commemoration of the Heysel Stadium disaster 30 years ago — the names of all 39 victims were shown on big screens in the 39th minute — will also be one that served as a lesson for Italy ahead of next summer’s European Championships.
The Azzurri got off to the best possible start possible at the King Beaudoin stadium, Antonio Candreva tapping home into a virtually empty net in the third minute after Simon Mignolet had parried Graziano Pelle’s effort.
Candreva should have doubled Italy’s lead moments later only for Mignolet to palm the Lazio winger’s angled striker over the bar.
But Italy’s joy was short-lived.
Italy’s defense was nowhere near Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen he leaned forward to meet a dipping corner and head past a static Gianluigi Buffon and into the ‘keeper’s bottom corner on 12 minutes.
Antonio Conte expected a tough test against Marc Wilmots’ hosts as they continue rebuilding following their disastrous first-round exit from last year’s World Cup.
Those expectations rang especially true in a one-sided second-half that saw Manchester City forward Kevin De Bruyne give Belgium a 74th minute lead before Batshauyi came off the bench to fire home eight minutes from time.
Belgium were quickly out of the traps after the interval and kept the pressure high throughout.
Vertonghen collected Romelu Lukaka’s mis-hit cross to fire just wide of Buffon’s net and minutes later Buffon gave away a corner when he panicked and hit the ball out while trying to pass to a defender.
When Chiellini stepped up to block a shot from De Bruyne it fell to Axel Witsel, but his effort went wide.
Lukaku was then unlucky to see his header come off the post after Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan whipped in a cross from the left that had Buffon in a panic.
Italy were under pressure but on the counter Southampton striker Pelle narrowly missed connecting with Matteo Darmian’s delivery.
Italy came close again when Eder ran on to and deflected Florenzi’s pacey delivery from midfield to see his shot come off the crossbar, with Mignolet scrambling to clear, and Candreva’s cross was wasted on Florenzi at the back post when Pelle had been screaming for quick ball on a promising counter.
Yet Belgium continued to threaten and Witsel needed just a touch to get on the end of De Bruyne’s delivery from the left wing only to see the ball bounce inches wide of Buffon’s far post.
Italy’s central defense was at fault on 75 minutes when De Bruyne hit Belgium’s second goal.
After Eden Hazard set up Batshuayi, Leonardo Bonucci hurried to intercept only to run into Juventus teammate Giorgio Chiellini. Buffon had rushed out and got a touch but could do nothing when the ball fell to De Bruyne.
Italy should have leveled moments later when Pelle was left unmarked to fire a bullet header from the edge of the box that Mignolet parried sperbly.
But Batshuayi put the match beyond reach on 87 minutes after he ran on to Ferreria Carrasco’s short pass inside the area to fire inside Buffon’s near post after the Atletico Madrid winger had Italy’s defense ball-watching.