Shades of Deep Purple: Part 21

Welcome back to the second season of my Fiorentina career on FM19. It’s been a frustrating campaign in Serie A, but we head into April still chasing silverware domestically and further afield.

Today’s chapter includes both legs of the Europa League Quarter Final with Internazionale, and perhaps even the first leg of the Semi if we come through that. Wish us luck!

AC MILAN vs FIORENTINA (Serie A, Match 31)

Playing back-to-back away games at the San Siro was difficult at the best of times. Kicking off that run against a Milan team that was bang in form and leading Serie A by two points would be even more daunting, especially as we were having a mini-crisis in defence.

Not only was Kevin Diks out for the best part of a month with an injured ankle, but our other right-back Almamy Touré had bruised his on international duty. That meant Nikola Milenkovic would have to play in that position from the start, and I was not feeling too optimistic after his late error against Roma.

Milenkovic would be entrusted with silencing Milan’s pacey inside-forward Giacomo Bonaventura. That didn’t exactly go to plan, as the Serbian defender fatefully lost his man in the 14th minute. Bonaventura wriggled away to get his head to Andrea Conti’s right-wing cross and grab the Rossoneri an early advantage.

Bonaventura was unlucky not to double his haul in the 17th minute, sending a shot over the bar. He was at least proving more of a threat than Milan’s other wide forward Samu Castillejo, who spurned a sitter seven minutes later and never really recovered.

Meanwhile, we seldom tested Gianluigi Donnarumma in the home goal. Our attacking midfield woes continued when an out-of-sorts Nicolás Benedetti skied a late half-volley well over the bar. He would be replaced for the second half with Pietro Pellegri, who partnered Santi Mina up front as we tried a new, more ambitious approach.

Milan might’ve been unbeaten in eight, but Gennaro Gattuso’s men had only scored at least twice in one of those matches. Their wastefulness was apparent when Bonaventura and Castillejo continued wasting chances until they were replaced with Hakan Çalhanoglu and Justin Kluivert.

By the 75th minute, I was going for broke. Maximiliano Olivera replaced Cristiano Biraghi at left wing-back, and speed merchant Luciano Vietto added more energy to our attack. My philosophy was very much, “Either we win 2-1 or we lose 3-0.”

So, er… we lost 3-0. Milenkovic had another mare in the 81st minute, when Ricardo Rodríguez dispossessed him in the Milan box. The resulting Rossoneri counter-attack ended with Kluivert driving in a classy centre from André Silva. Patrick’s son helped himself to a second goal in stoppage time, tucking away the rebound after Franck Kessie’s fierce drive had been parried by Viola keeper Alban Lafont.

Milan stretched their lead to four points, as closest rivals Inter and Napoli could only muster 1-1 away draws against Chievo and Empoli respectively. Juventus’ fading title hopes were boosted with a 3-0 win over Sampdoria.

As far as our top-six hopes were concerned, this defeat wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Torino failed to take advantage, slipping to a 2-0 loss at Genoa. On the other hand, Atalanta beat Salernitana by the same scoreline to move closer to a European place.

INTERNAZIONALE vs FIORENTINA (Europa League, Quarter Final – Leg 1)

Five days after our Milan mauling, we were back for another gruelling Inter-rogation. Touré returned to the fold after recovering from his ankle injury, but now we had another wing-back on the sidelines.

So, in terms of left-back options, we now had Olivera and… practically no-one else. [Applause] Fantastic team-planning, Christopher. Well done.

Losing Biraghi wasn’t what I had in mind for an encounter with a Nerazzurri team on an 11-match unbeaten streak. Neither was conceding the first goal after 17 seconds. I had only just taken my place in the dugout when Touré miscued his clearance from a Sime Vrsaljko cross. Marcelo Brozovic cushioned a return header to a prowling Matteo Politano, and before we knew it, we were 1-0 down.

It would take us pretty much the entire first half to get on our feet again after that sucker-punch. Luciano Spalletti’s direct attacking football was overwhelming us, and it was only thanks to some lacklustre finishing that the scoreline didn’t become embarrassingly one-sided.

The centre of our defence started to crack in the 34th minute, when Vítor Hugo pulled his groin in a clash with Inter forward Pedro. The stricken Brazilian was replaced with Federico Ceccherini, who was back in action two months after tearing a thigh muscle. It was our other centre-half’s thigh that caused us problems three minutes later, as a deep Vrsaljko delivery deflected in off Germán Pezzella for a cruel own goal.

Trailing 2-0 at half-time, we knew that grabbing an away goal would be critical to our hopes of staying in the competition. Vice-captain Federico Chiesa gave it a good go in the 56th minute, but Samir Handanovic turned his effort over his bar. The Slovenian old-timer was also equal to three efforts from our teenage striker Pellegri.

Chiesa’s game was sadly ended after an hour by a robust tackle from Politano that injured his Achilles. Touré then hurt his ankle again in the closing stages, but he had to play on, as I’d used up all my subs.

Inter weren’t spared injury problems, either, as substitute wing-back Danilo D’Ambrosio strained a hamstring shortly after taking Vrsaljko’s place in the 62nd minute. Despite that, the Nerazzurri hit us with a volley of late shots, which we withstood to keep the final scoreline at 2-0. Unfortunately, it was the ‘nil’ that looked most significant from our perspective, heading into our home leg.

Now for this week’s Injury Report, sponsored by Danny Welbeck. Vítor’s pulled groin would keep him out of Fiorentina’s next match, while Chiesa and Touré would only be fit enough for the bench.

And now it’s time for the weather, with Carol Kirkwood…

FIORENTINA vs ATALANTA (Serie A, Match 32)

While there was no threat of actual rain in Florence on this Monday evening, it would figuratively rain goals in a thrilling encounter with 8th-placed Atalanta. Were La Dea to triumph, they would be just a point behind us and put our European place under serious threat.

As Diks was still injured, Touré was still struggling, and Milenkovic was still… Milenkovic, I promoted 18-year-old Edoardo Pierozzi from the Primavera to give him a first-team debut at right-back. He didn’t enjoy the best of starts, as we fell behind in the fifth minute to Gianluca Mancini’s header from an Alejandro Gómez free-kick. To be fair to Pierozzi, most of the blame would fall on Olivera for failing to keep track of Mancini.

Seven minutes later, though, two of our French aces got us back on terms. Jordan Veretout passed low to Valentin Eysseric, who dribbled goalwards before hooking in a delightful finish from just outside the Atalanta ‘D’.

It was Eysseric’s foul on Atalanta wing-back Hans Hateboer that give away the free-kick which led to their goal. The tables turned in the 26th minute, as Hateboer conceded a penalty after upending Valentin. Domenico Berardi had never missed a penalty for Fiorentina, and he continued his proud record with an emphatic strike.

Sadly, our 2-1 lead was short-lived. Olivera horribly underhit a back-pass to Lafont, which allowed our nemesis Duván Zapata to nick the ball, pass our onrushing keeper, and tap into an empty net. That was very much Maxi’s mistake.

There was more frustration late in the first half, when Eysseric picked up a booking and then a knock in quick succession. Chiesa replaced him at the break, though not before an unlikely scorer put us 3-2 ahead. Though the fingertips of visiting goalkeeper Marco Sportiello denied midfielder Christian Nørgaard his first competitive Viola goal, the rebound was squirmed in by Ceccherini, who broke his duck!

We took our new-found confidence into the second half, with Chiesa doubling our lead barely a minute after coming on. A devastating breakaway resulted in substitute striekr Pellegri feeding the Franchi favourite with a sumptuous searching pass that was calmly slotted past Sportiello.

Chiesa was now on 15 goals this season, and Pellegri would reach that milestone in the 52nd minute. Our loanee wonderkid showed a poacher-like instinct to volley in a follow-up shot after the crossbar had denied a luckless Nørgaard. Atalanta had fallen apart, and the points were safely ours once Veretout smashed in a SIXTH Fiorentina goal midway through the half.

Despite an inauspicious start, our performance had been so great that TEN Fiorentina players received match ratings of 7.4 or higher. I was delighted to see that Pierozzi was amongst them, having settled down and enjoyed an excellent debut. Another young full-back had made a first senior appearance in this match, with Simone Morleo replacing the disappointing Olivera for the closing moments.

Pierozzi’s rise to prominence was confirmed when he and four team-mates were named in Serie A’s Team of the Week. That’s another Steam achievement safely in the books…

With Milan only drawing 0-0 at Verona, Inter closed the gap at the top to a couple of points by brushing Parma aside 2-0. However, Napoli stumbled again after a goalless stalemate with Chievo. Divock Origi pinched a 1-0 win for Lazio over Juventus at the Olimpico, also snatching 4th place from the Bianconeri in the process.

Our victory gave us a five-point lead on 7th-placed Torino, who were held at home by Roma. It was vital that we kept as much distance between us an Il Toro before our meeting in Turin next month.

FIORENTINA vs INTERNAZIONALE (Europa League, Quarter Final – Leg 2)

And so our push for Europa League glory came down to this. If we were to advance to the Semi Finals, we had to overturn a 2-0 first-leg disadvantage and defeat Inter comfortably. A raucous Franchi crowd would be behind us all the way.

Were Inter to grab the away goal that we couldn’t muster at the San Siro, we would need to beat Handanovic at least four times to have any chance of progressing. The Nerazzurri threatened to make our task nigh on impossible in the fifth minute, but Lafont managed to stop Kwadwo Asamoah’s shot from creeping in at his near post.

Our first chance to strike came in the 10th minute, when a 30-yard ball from captain Marco Benassi sent Pellegri charging goalwards. Our youngster tried a speculative chip over Handanovic, only to mishit the ball and send it limping towards the advertising boards. That would be the start of an uncharacteristically poor display from the boy wonder.

Slack Fiorentina passing didn’t help our cause, allowing Inter to enjoy the lion’s share of possession. Even so, Benassi looked a lively presence in our midfield, and inside-forward Berardi forced Handanovic into a couple of saves just before half-time.

After playing somewhat cautiously in the first period, we went for broke in the second. Chiesa came on in the 56th minute to add fresh impetus to our attack. Eight minutes later, he swung a corner deep to Benassi, who flicked it into Inter’s six-yard box. Pellegri rose high above a couple of visiting defenders to meet the ball with a header of his own, but he couldn’t keep it from clearing the bar.

Disappointingly, that transpired to be our last chance. Substitute attacking midfielder Benedetti failed to make an impact, and we spent the final moments of our European campaign defending against Nerazzurri attacks. Our defence kept a clean sheet to their credit, but we simply weren’t good enough further up the pitch.

Yes, it was disappointing to see our European charge end so tamely at this late stage. If you’d offered me a Quarter Final place at the start of the season, though, you could bet your bottom Euro that I would’ve taken it.

SALERNITANA vs FIORENTINA (Serie A, Match 33)

Next for us were successive away matches against promoted teams. Salernitana looked set to go straight back to Serie B, having won just twice since Andrea Mandorlini replaced the Wolves-bound Stefano Colantuono as head coach in January. Those victories had come against Bologna and Parma, both of whom were also battling to avoid relegation.

In that respect, it came as a massive surprise – not least to us – that the Granata opened the scoring just 15 minutes in. Milenkovic was once again at least partly to blame, with his shove on Alessandro Rossi having given away a free-kick 30 yards from our goal. Not a single purple shirt managed to cut out Nicola Bellomo’s lofted delivery, which centre-back Marco Capuano headed home for a shock opener.

Our response was emphatic. Within less than a minute, Eysseric had cancelled Salernitana’s goal out with a powerful header from Vietto’s byline cross. Vietto was making his 22nd appearance for the Viola, and that was only the right-winger’s second assist. Indeed, he almost set up another goal for Eysseric four minutes later, but Valentin could only hit the bar on that occasion.

The rest of the first half was a frustrating experience for me, not least when the hosts reinstated their advantage in the penultimate minute. There was bedlam in the Fiorentina box after Milenkovic flung himself in front of a powerful drive from midfielder Francesco Di Tacchio. The ball eventually fell to journeyman winger Andrea Mazzarani, who slipped the ball past the onrushing Lafont.

Lafont’s goalkeeping was slightly more competent when he caught Rossi’s shot in the 52nd minute after the Lazio loanee had run onto Mazzarini’s lobbed through-ball. That was a rare second-half attempt from the underdogs, whose midfield was noticeably weakened when Di Tacchio and Dimitri Bisoli each came off with knocks.

Despite Salernitana’s issues, our own midfield was not incisive enough to take advantage. Our widemen did at least threaten to equalise in the 83rd minute, but Eysseric’s header from another promising delivery by Vietto found its way into Alessandro Micai’s hands.

Though the Granata’s on-loan Fiorentina left-back David Hancko was booked in stoppage time for a holding foul on Vietto, the young Slovakian would have the last laugh. We whimpered to an embarrassing 2-1 defeat – one which surely did for our hopes of sneaking into next season’s Champions League.

With 15 points to play for, we now trailed 4th-placed Lazio by nine. The Biancocelesti had edged out Cagliari by the odd goal in five to put some daylight between themselves and Juventus, who slumped to a 1-0 home defeat by Inter.

With Milan having only managed a 1-1 draw against Pescara, the Rossoneri surrended 1st place to their bitter foes on head-to-head. A goalless draw against an increasingly hopeless Parma meant Napoli were four points adrift of the Milanese duo in 3rd.

PESCARA vs FIORENTINA (Serie A, Match 34)

We looked to put the disappointment of Salernitana aside when we made our way to Pescara four days later. Getting a victory at the Adriatico wouldn’t be easy, as the Delfini were unbeaten in seven home matches, while we’d lost our last three games on the road.

Despite still not being fully fit, Biraghi returned from his knee ligament injury for this match. Pierozzi was our other starting wing-back, though the teenager’s sophomore senior appearance would be more “Second Coming” than his “The Stone Roses” debut. He would be replaced with Diks at half-time, having gashed his leg late on in a nervy display.

‘Nervy’ could also sum up our general performance. We appeared to be going nowhere fast in the 17th minute, when Harlem Gnohere almost put Pescara ahead from Simone Padoin’s through-ball. Only a last-ditch block by Lafont – and a clearance by Biraghi – saved our bacon.

Gnohere missed a few more opportunities for the Delfini, but his strike partner would be struggling even more come half-time. A crunching tackle from our determined skipper Pezzella in injury time left Brayan Perea with a twisted ankle and unable to play on.

Perea’s departure turned the tide. Our other half-time sub Benedetti sent a banana shot wide early in the second half, but fellow midfielder Veretout looked a genuine threat. Pescara goalkeeper Vincenzo Fiorillo saved an audacious left-footer from the Frenchman after the hour mark.

Jordan would make an even greater impression in the 66th minute. Veretout’s through-ball from deep sent Mina on his way towards goal, and after sidestepping defender Marco Perrotta, the Spanish striker slotted in just his second Viola goal. Mina’s deadlock-breaker came at a great time, as barely a minute had passed since Chiesa spurned two clear chances in succession.

After Fiorillo twice stopped Eysseric from putting us 2-0 up, the Delfini made a late – and fruitless – push for an equaliser. Former Juventus midfielder Padoin rattled our crossbar from distance in stoppage time, but that was as close as they came to breaching a defence that Pezzella had marshaled superbly.

The two teams directly below us – Atalanta and Torino – shared six goals between them, which meant we held a six-point lead on them heading into May. We were also effectively guaranteed a top-eight placing, as Sampdoria’s sensational 7-2 win over Roma meant we would finish above the Giallorossi for the first time since 2013.

Just like Roma, Juventus were having a season to forget. Their aspirations of a ninth straight championship were officially put to bed when they squandered a 2-0 lead and drew at Napoli. Inter remained in pole position to claim the scudetto, with their 4-0 demolition of Cagliari putting the Nerazzurri four points clear of Milan, who were held at Udinese.

Viola fans are no doubt delighted that Juventus’ dominance of Serie A is now officially over, but will they have more reason to rejoice in May? Come back soon for the 2019/2020 season finale, where the main event will be that Coppa Italia Final against Napoli.

In the meantime, do check out the latest chapter of “Florence And The Goal Machine”, where The Wide Playmaker completes his first season in charge of Fiorentina.

“Forza viola!”

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