PARIS (AP) — Italy opened its campaign with an impressive victory over Belgium, while defending champion Spain beat the Czech Republic on a good day for the big teams at the European Championship on Monday.
Ridiculed by their own media as one of the country’s worst tournament teams, the Italian players responded with a remarkable 2-0 victory that sent the Azzurri to the top of Group E after Sweden and Ireland drew 1-1 in an earlier match.
Spain needed a late goal from Gerard Pique to beat a particularly stubborn Czech Republic 1-0.
Though the football finally took center stage, Euro 2016 remains dogged by an opening weekend that witnessed drink-fueled violence involving English and Russian fans on the streets of Marseille and the city’s stadium.
On Monday, a Marseille court convicted six English supporters and imposed prison sentences ranging from one-to-three months to five of them.
There are concerns of further trouble in northern France this week, with Russia playing Slovakia on Wednesday in Lille, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Lens, where England plays Wales on Thursday.
Prompted by a UEFA warning that England and Russia could be kicked out of the tournament if the violence continues, England coach Roy Hodgson and captain Wayne Rooney both made video appeals for their supporters to behave.
Tight defending and two well-taken goals were the keys to Italy’s victory in Lyon against a Belgium lineup tipped by some to win the tournament.
While the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne failed to deliver, despite Belgium enjoying plenty of possession, Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle made a mockery of Italy’s underdog status.
Giaccherini pounced on a stunning 40-meter ball over the Belgium defense by Leonardo Bonucci to score in the 32nd minute and Pelle rounded off a breakaway with an unstoppable volley from inside the area in stoppage time.
“The critics were all against us,” said Italy coach Antonio Conte, who got a bloody nose in the celebrations that followed Giaccherini’s opener. “But this is the beauty of football. You get the chance to prove people wrong, if you have the determination and will to work like we have.”
Spain’s match followed an all too familiar pattern, with its opponents putting 11 men behind the ball and hoping for a draw while the European champions patiently try to create an opening.
In Toulouse, Spain’s patience finally paid off in the 87th minute, when Andres Iniesta found space on the left side of the area to chip over a perfect cross for Gerard Pique to head home.
It was no less than Vicente Del Bosque’s team deserved for 90 minutes of hopelessly one-sided football.
“We took the initiative during the entire match. We dominated,” the Spain coach said. “Iniesta made a perfect pass and Pique was phenomenal.”
Sweden’s game at Saint-Denis was a great deal more balanced, with Ireland well worth its 48th-minute lead when Wes Hoolahan swept in Seamus Coleman’s cross with a sweetly-struck half volley.
“It’s up there with the best goals I’ve scored,” said Hoolahan, known as “Wessi” among fans of English club Norwich — a play on Lionel Messi’s name because of the 34-year-old Irishman’s trickery with the ball.
As ever, though, the talismanic Ibrahimovic came to Sweden’s rescue.
His dangerous ball across the face of the goal was met with a stooping header by luckless Ireland defender Ciaran Clark into his own net.
“I give the cross and he headed in the goal,” Ibrahimovic said, replying with a chuckling laugh when asked if it was Ibra magic. “You should ask him.”
Very few players cast a bigger shadow in European football than Ibrahimovic, but one of them will be taking the field in Tuesday’s matches.
Fresh from helping Real Madrid win the Champions League, Cristiano Ronaldo will lead Portugal against Iceland, while Austria plays Hungary in the other Group F match.
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