I’m a very happy manager right now. It looks like this third season might be the one where my Fiorentina team finally click into gear. We’re flying in Serie A, our Europa League campaign is going swimmingly, and we’ve been strong at both ends of the pitch.
What, then, could possibly go wrong in November?
SLAVIA PRAGUE vs FIORENTINA (Europa League, Group G – Match 4)
First off for the Viola in November was a trip to the Czech Republic, where Slavia Prague were looking to cause us problems. If we could find a way past them and record another win, we would effectively – and perhaps even mathematically – secure a knockout berth with two group games to play.
Yeah, erm… turned out that was easier said than done. Slavia might not have scored in our previous meeting, but they looked genuinely dangerous on that front in the first half. The powerful Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui had a header saved by Alban Lafont in the 10th minute, and his central defensive partner Vaclav Jemelka came close himself five minutes later.
The hosts’ biggest dangerman, though, was their hard-working centre-forward Stanislav Tecl. In the 22nd minute, he ran onto a searching ball from Turkey winger Bilal Başacıkoğlu and used his physicality to brush past marker Alessandro Bastoni. After a sharp turn, Tecl stroked the ball into the net with his apparently weaker left foot.
Tecl had put a cat amongst the pigeons… and ten minutes later, he let a dog loose as well. On that occasion, it was our captain Germán Pezzella who Tecl got past after latching onto a fantastic pass by left-winger Jaromir Zmrhal. Lafont was helplessly beaten again, and we were 2-0 down to the group’s lowest seeds!
Tecl remained in the thick of things later in the first half. After collecting a booking for pushing our midfield aggressor Lucas Tousart, the Czech international had a hat-trick opportunity turned behind by a resolute Lafont.
Even so, it was clear that I had to make changes. The players received a half-time dressing-down before I switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation and made all three substitutions in one fell swoop. The changes took a while to take full effect, but once they did, we were right back in contention.
After several unsuccessful attempts, we eventually broke the Červenobílí defence in the 66th minute. Kevin Diks‘ centre from the right flank found substitute forward Valentin Eysseric, who needed two attempts to get the better of Slavia’s shotstopper Ondrej Kolar.
Another lifeline came our way six minutes from full-time. As midfielder Abdou Diakhaté – another half-time sub – hoisted the ball ahead of striker Willem Geubbels, Slavia’s enforcer Manuel Schmiedebach stuck out a hand to divert it away. As Schmiedebach was already on a booking, there was no question of him being sent off.
Once the dust settled, Eysseric hoisted the ball into the hosts’ penalty area. Kolar came out of his six-yard box to try and meet it, but he was comfortably beaten by Diakhaté, who headed in his first competitive goal for Fiorentina! More importantly, that completed our fightback from 2-0 down and earned us a hard-earned point.
There were more fireworks in Sweden, where Dynamo Kyiv squandered a 2-0 lead in injury time and gifted Malmö a draw. That left us and Dynamo on eight points apiece, Malmö on four, and Slavia eliminated on one. The top two would meet at the Artemio Franchi three weeks later, and whoever won that would secure 1st place in Group G.
FIORENTINA vs SPAL (Serie A, Match 13)
After three straight draws, I saw this match as the perfect opportunity to return to winning ways. Even with our senior left-backs – Cristiano Biraghi and David Hancko – both struggling with knocks, we were regarded as strong favourites to beat SPAL on home soil. If we could avoid an upset, we would stretch our unbeaten run in all competitions to 15 matches.
That being said, Claudio Ranieri had taken his newly-promoted team on an excellent run of form themselves. Milan, Roma, Juventus and Napoli had all had points taken off them during a seven-game lossless streak, so only a fool would have dared dismiss the Biancazzurri as total no-hopers.
Indeed, by the 13th minute, our goalkeeper was looking very foolish. As Manuel Lazzari swung a right-wing cross into our box, Lafont charged forward to try and pluck it out of the air. However, he and three Viola defenders were all beaten to the ball by striker Alessandro Rossi, who nodded SPAL into a shock 1-0 lead!
I was absolutely fuming at that, and my anger could’ve reached new heights eight minutes later. Not only did right-back Almamy Touré pick up a booking for a clumsy challenge from Filippo Costa, but Costa himself headed in the resultant Maxime Lopez free-kick. Only a very marginal offside call by VAR prevented us from falling further adrift.
SPAL then went full Ranieri by bravely defending their lead with their lives. Left-back Danilo Avelar in particular was a thorn in our attackers’ sides, making several excellent tackles and interceptions. Not even a shin injury sustained in the second half could stop him making Patrick Roberts‘ life a misery.
Eysseric’s nemesis was the SPAL keeper Alfred Gomis, who saved all three of his shots on goal. The Senegalese international’s best save came in the 89th minute, when he clawed our substitute midfielder Christian Nørgaard‘s banana shot off his line. Quite simply, nothing was getting past him.
Not even Federico Chiesa or Nicolás Benedetti could make a difference from the bench. Just like many Premier League managers in 2015/2016, I had been tactically outwitted by Ranieri, who tore our unbeaten home record to shreds. Part of me really wanted to strangle the old codger… but to be honest, how can anyone possibly hate Claudio Ranieri?
We started this weekend with high hopes of going level on points with leaders Inter. We ended it out of the Champions League places, having fallen to 5th place. The light-blue brigades of Napoli and Pescara won 4-1 at Chievo and 3-0 against Sampdoria to charge ahead of us.
Inter were comfortable 3-0 winners against Roma, and the Nerazzurri thus regained their four-point advantage on Juventus, who had lost 2-0 at Atalanta. The other match between Milanese and Roman opposition also resulted in capital punishment, as Milan prevailed by the same 3-0 scoreline at Lazio.
As it so happened, that shock loss coincided with the final international break of the year. That meant I had a fortnight to work my team back to their best. Unfortunately, one player was pushed just a little too far:
Benedetti had performed much better since being retrained as a box-to-box midfielder, partly because attacking midfielders in the current FM19 match engine serve next to no purpose. Losing him for a month was a blow, though it would open up a few more opportunities for Diakhaté to impress me.
Meanwhile, Lafont finally got a chance to impress the new France manager Rudi Garcia on international duty. When Les Bleus played Iran in a friendly, Alban put his error against SPAL to one side and won his first senior cap at the age of 21. Let’s hope that there are many more to come.
PALERMO vs FIORENTINA (Serie A, Match 14)
After a fortnight out of action, we looked to bounce back in Sicily against a Palermo side who were having a bewildering first season back in Serie A. Having won their first three matches without a manager, they hired Gian Piero Gasperini, who had since taken one point from a possible 30.
With our opponents in free-fall, the stage was set for us to utterly dominate proceedings. Well, by ‘dominate’, our midfielders perhaps meant shot from any and every distance without attempting to effectively break down a very defensive team. Yes, I am looking at you, Lucas Tousart and Jordan Veretout.
Palermo dug their heels in as we struggled to break through. Chiesa and a refreshed Pietro Pellegri did have a couple of shots from inside the box on the half-hour mark, but both were saved by Alberto Brignoli. Otherwise, most of our opportunities came from set-piece deliveries to the head of Kurt Zouma, whom Brignoli would thwart on three occasions.
During the second half, we started to take a more patient approach and play with a lower tempo than usual. However, Chiesa and Pellegri were still far from their best, and our French midfielders conducting their own long-shot challenge, so we still had no joy.
Had Palermo in turn mustered more than just the first-minute shot from Kevin Cannavò which was saved by Lafont, we could’ve been left with egg on our face. Even so, the Sicilian defence looked set to earn Gasperini a second point to go with the one he ground out at Lazio in September.
After over 30 unsuccessful attempts at goal, we got one more opportunity in injury-time. Palermo right-back Andrea Rispoli’s clumsy challenge on Eysseric gave us a penalty, which Chiesa lifted into the area. Of all people, it was Biraghi who broke free from the defence, driving an angled shot against the post before sticking the rebound away! An unlikely hero had ended our four-game winless run!
Incredibly, Biraghi’s goal saw us vault over three teams into 2nd. That was because Juventus had lost 1-0 to Inter (who now had a six-point lead), Napoli had conceded an 89th-minute winner against Atalanta, and Pescara had drawn 1-1 at Udinese. The Bianconeri, Partenopei and Delfini were all behind us by a single point now.
BENASSI GETS HIS SATISFACTION
Seeing your side grab a last-minute winner against arguably the worst team in the division can be surprisingly inspiring. Having sulked about not playing in the Champions League for 15 months, Benassi decided immediately after that match that he wanted to stay with Fiorentina after all.
Well, I’m glad. Benassi is a fantastic all-round midfield talent and a major part of my long-term plans for Fiorentina. Let’s hope that we soon start to see Marco back to his best, because when his head’s screwed on, he’s a joy to watch.
If he’d still been moaning come January and our top-four place was in major jeopardy, I would probably have given in and sold up. I was even prepared to get shot of Benassi as recently as the SPAL defeat, midway through which I hauled him off because he looked “disinterested”.
A few days after Palermo, a little bird (called Germán) told me that Marco wanted to confirm his commitment to the Viola by signing a new contract. I went back to Benassi, but he shrugged and said, “Nah, you’re alright.”
Benassi’s current contract runs until the end of next season. I’ll probably offer him fresh terms in the summer if he’s back in form and we’ve qualified for the Champions League. (Don’t tell Marco yet, though. Let’s keep this as our little secret for now. Got that? Brilliant.)
FIORENTINA vs DYNAMO KIEV (Europa League, Group G – Match 5)
As Europa League group matches go, this was a big one. With both teams on eight points after four games, whoever won here would secure 1st position in Group G and earn themselves a theoretically favourable draw in the Round of 32. A draw would also be enough for both teams to qualify if 3rd-placed Malmö could not win at Slavia Prague.
A fast start was key, and Veretout was lightning-quick out of the blocks. Having troubled Dynamo keeper Dominik Livakovic with a shot in the fourth minute, Jordan went a step further three minutes later. After his initial header from Domenico Berardi‘s free-kick was pushed back towards him, Veretout stroked in the rebound to send our fans wild!
Berardi helped to start another party amongst the home crowd in the 11th minute. The enigmatic forward’s corner was flicked across goal by Pezzella to Zouma, whose far-post finish earned us a 2-0 lead! We could almost taste the next round!
However, Dynamo weren’t finished yet. Stalwart midfielder Denys Garmash had a speculative long-range effort saved by Lafont in the 20th minute, and his colleagues would break through eight minutes later. Flame-haired forward Victor Tsygankov sent an outswinging corner to striker Artem Besedin, who outjumped Pezzella to score the header that cut our lead in half.
Our moment of worry would only last a minute. We’d barely resumed proceedings when Touré got the ball back into Dynamo’s penalty area. Geubbels knocked it down to vice-captain Chiesa, who prodded in just his second goal of an underwhelming season.
Chiesa then wasted a couple of opportunities to turn a 3-1 lead into 4-1 either side of half-time. Those misses would become increasingly significant in the 54th minute, when another Tsygankov corner saw us concede again. This time, it was the burly Mykyta Burda who came from defence to nod in a second goal for the Ukrainians.
Zouma was the man Burda beat to that corner delivery, and the French stopper could’ve made amends shortly afterwards. However, he could only turn a Geubbels flick-on against the woodwork before Benjamin Verbic cleared it upfield to start a Dynamo counter-attack. Within moments, the advancing Vitaliy Buyalskyi had squared the ball for a clean-through Volodymyr Shepelev to draw his team level.
Having seen our 3-1 advantage disappear in the space of about four minutes, we almost fell 4-3 behind in the 68th. Goodness knows how I would’ve reacted had Lafont got his gloves to a lofted effort from Besedin, who was looking for a third goal in two meetings with the Viola.
For most of the final quarter of this match, we pressed hard in search for a late winner to send us through. It wasn’t to be for our midfield trio of Benassi, Veretout and substitute Diakhaté, all of whom had shots saved by Livakovic before the referee called time at 3-3.
While the top two were still on equal points, Dynamo now had the edge over us by virtue of away goals. To add to our frustration, Slavia Prague had not done us the favour we’d expected from them. A meek 2-0 home defeat to Malmö meant our place in the knockouts was still far from assured.
Despite what the table suggests, I’m sure it’s impossible for Dynamo Kyiv not to qualify now. The second qualification place will be decided next month, when we travel to Sweden needing only a point to go through. If Malmö can exact revenge on the 5-0 thrashing we gave them in October, they will go through instead.
CHIEVO vs FIORENTINA (Serie A, Match 15)
For the second weekend in a row, we paid a visit to a team battling against relegation. Marco Giampaolo’s Chievo were without a win in seven matches and desperately trying to claw their way out of the bottom three. We were the bookmakers’ firm favourites once again, but having seen us make so many mountains out of molehills recently, I was not taking anything for granted.
I saw reasons for concern as early as the fourth minute. Chiesa picked out Pellegri in space in the Chievo area, but Andrea Seculin pushed away an angled strike that Pietro would probably have slotted home a month or two earlier. Young box-to-box midfielder Diakhaté – making a rare league start – drove a shot inches over the bar shortly afterwards.
Worse was to come in the 14th minute, when Eysseric was easily dispossessed by home full-back Rick Karsdorp. The Clivensi launched a direct counter-attack, which ended with striker Jordan Siebatcheu – or ‘Pefok’ to his friends – drilling the ball across our area for midfielder Fabio Depaoli to drive in the opener.
Though Chiesa hit the post with a potential equaliser in the 18th minute, our other attackers would have better luck in the 34th. Chievo’s counter was itself countered by a Viola breakaway, and Eysseric got his head to a cross from Pellegri to beat Seculin at the back post.
After an even first period, we set about taking control in the second. There would be plenty of our frustration on the attacking front from our midfielders. Benassi bent a wayward shot over the bar in the 60th minute, while Veretout’s half-volley a quarter of an hour later was stopped by Seculin.
I had gambled on substituting Chiesa for Berardi in the closing stages. That looked like paying off with a little over ten minutes to go, when Berardi won us a penalty upon being tripped by left-back Ivan Michelotti. And as we all know, Domenico never ever missed penalties…
…except he did here. All good runs must come to an end, and Berardi’s perfect conversion rate from 12 yards was ruined when a tame strike was clawed away by Seculin. The one-time Fiorentina youth goalkeeper also thwarted another Viola substitute in Santi Mina before the full-time whistle blew at 1-1. Once again, we’d failed to convert a dominant performance into a victory, and we only had ourselves to blame.
Strangely, that slip-up didn’t do any real damage to our league position. Three other teams in the top five had drawn as well, with Inter and Napoli becoming locked in a stalemate before Juventus failed to kill Genoa off. The big losers were Pescara, whose 3-1 home defeat against Roma saw them cede 4th spot to Napoli.
I should’ve been happier with 2nd place after 15 games, but I couldn’t help feeling we’d missed a trick. Those dropped points against SPAL and Chievo could prove very costly in the long run.
After the month I’ve had, I need something that’ll cheer me right up in time for December.
Yeah, that’ll do.
I hope you enjoyed this part, even if the results weren’t fantastic. One Fiorentina manager who does know how to transform the Viola into consistent winners is The Wide Playmaker, who’s just posted the latest chapter of his “Florence And The Goal Machine” career. Give that a read if you haven’t already.