LYON, France – On a night when Italy showed it is still a force to be reckoned with at the European Championship, Leonardo Bonucci put on a masterly performance from the heart of its defense to show that defense is still the heart of the team.
The 29-year-old center back did it all on Monday, excelling both in defense and attack to lead Italy to a 2-0 victory over Belgium as he and his two partners at the back hit a milestone.
"We showed some typical Italian qualities," said Bonucci. "Sacrifice, humility, physical fitness, desire."
Bonucci and Juventus teammates Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli reached a combined 200 appearances for the Italian national team, and they did so by keeping in check the world's second-ranked team famous for its attacking flare.
Standing tall at the center of Italy's defense, Bonucci intervened on several occasions to disrupt Belgium attackers who were already sizing up Gianluigi Buffon's goalmouth.
It may not be catenaccio, the smothering defensive tactic perfected by Italian defenders in the 1970s. Bonucci showed this with attacking darts out of defense, not a tradition often practiced by Italian defenders.
He made timely tackles to stop Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku before he provided an inch perfect assist for Emanuele Giaccherini to score the opening goal.
With Belgium dictating the pace early on, Bonucci caught them off-guard when he approached midfield. Instead of laying the ball off, he took a quick glance up and spied Giaccherini starting his darting move around defender Toby Alderweireld.
Bonucci lofted the sweetest of lobs 40 meters ahead, landing his pass just over Alderweireld and before Thibaut Courtois could come out to challenge.
Giaccherini did the rest with a deft control with his left boot before using the other foot to slot the ball home.
Belgium had been picked as a pre-tournament favorite based on its oodles of attacking talent.
But Bonucci set the tone for an exhaustive team effort to stymie Belgium's lauded playmaking pair of Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne and pull off what coach Antonio Conte agreed was an upset.
"We were excellent today at preparing for the game and overturning the odds," Conte said. "Because the odds were against us and that is what great about football. They odds can be overturned with passion and commitment."
The back line of three allowed Conte to overcome Italy's lack of quality in attack by getting numbers forward.
The formation paid dividends, especially on the second goal. Belgium was searching desperately for an equalizer and was outnumbered when Graziano Pelle sealed Italy's win in stoppage time, sending Conte and his bench into wild celebrations that spilled onto the field.
"I really liked my player's attitude," Conte said. "They created chances to hurt Belgium and to dig in, and while we were digging in we came up with chances to double our lead."
Bonucci earned his 58th cap, while the 31-year-old Chiellini reached his 85th and Barzagli hit No. 57.
They did so in a performance that flew in the face of the team's critics, who said this side was Italy's worst in recent memory and without a chance to repeat the finalist appearance four years ago.
Italy now leads Group E after Sweden and Ireland drew 1-1 also on Monday.
Bonucci and company will get another challenge on Thursday when they face Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden.