Shades of Deep Purple: Part 42 – IL FINALE

After nearly three months, and 45 blog posts, “Shades of Deep Purple” has come down to this. As the 2021/2022 Serie A season, it really is all or nothing for me and my Fiorentina team.

The Coppa Italia has eluded as, and so too has anything resembling success in Europe. Serie A represents my final chance of leaving Florence with any silverware on my CV. If we can overhaul Napoli’s advantage at the top of the standings, it will end the Viola’s 21-year wait for a major trophy, and a 53-year wait to become Italian league champions.

And so, unlike Britain’s politicians, let us immediately get on with the matter at hand…

THE RUN-IN

So there’s exactly how things stood with five games to go. Remember that we needed to collect SIX more points in our run-in than the leaders did in theirs. Because they beat us at the San Paolo and drew at the Artemio Franchi, Napoli would have the upper hand if the teams finished level on points.

In effect, Napoli needed a minimum of 10 points to deny us the title, but that wasn’t going to be easy. The Partenopei had three tricky away games ahead, starting with a bothersome visit to Torino. Even victories in their home matches against deposed champions Inter and European challengers Atalanta wouldn’t be a given, even though they had yet to lose a league game at the San Paolo.

Meanwhile, we had a theoretically simpler run-in on paper, with three games at the Franchi, where only Roma had beaten us in the league all season long. Once we got a difficult encounter with Milan out of the way, we wouldn’t play another side outside of the bottom seven.

It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that we could collect at least 12 points from our final fixtures, and that Napoli could drop significant points in at least three of theirs. That would potentially be enough for us to snare the scudetto.

Of course, one couldn’t completely rule either Udinese (in 3rd place on 66 points) or Juventus (in 4th place on 64 points) out of the title race. Ultimately, though, this looked like being a two-way dash for the finish line.

FIORENTINA vs AC MILAN (Serie A, Match 34)

Napoli were in action on the evening of Saturday 23 April, when hosts Torino helped us out by bravely holding Carlo Ancelotti’s men to a 0-0 draw. Though that solitary point secured Napoli’s place in next season’s Champions League, their failure to take all three gave us an opportunity to narrow the gap.

Our run-in began at home to 5th-placed Milan, who were looking to nick a Champions League spot at the expense of Juventus, Udinese… or perhaps even us. Captain and central defender Alessio Romagnoli had pulled his hamstring in training, which left the Rossoneri a bit more vulnerable at the back.

At centre-half for us were Alessandro Bastoni and Daniele Rugani – the same partnership who’d started our previous two games. I was going to start Belaïd Nemdil instead of Bastoni, but the French teenager had once again been moaning about wanting a new contract. Nemdil again threatened to tell the press about his demands, but it took vice-captain Lucas Tousart to calm him down. Where would I be without Lucas?

Where would I be without Alban Lafont as well? Our ever-dependable custodian tipped behind a powerful drive from Milan striker André Silva in the 7th minute. He produced an even more vital save nine minutes later, getting his fingers to Giacomo Bonaventura’s shot after the Rossoneri skipper had pounced on a poor clearance from Almamy Touré.

Moments later, the game was sadly up for yet another of our French legion. Jordan Veretout hurt his hip while fouling Milan’s attacking midfielder Oscar, bringing his season to an early halt. Taking his place in midfield was Sandro Tonali, who’d only been named on the bench after six consecutive starts.

Visiting goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma made his first save in the 20th minute, catching a header from our inside-forward Alexandru Măţan. We appeared to be slowly working our way into the game, but ten minutes later, a header at the other end sent us 1-0 behind. Julian Weigl’s killer ball out right was crossed into the box by Patrick Cutrone, and up rose Bonaventura for a brilliant nodded finish.

Mario Mandzukic had opportunities to draw us back level towards the end of a combative first period, but the inconsistent Croatian veteran was once again found wanting. He did at least pose more of a threat after the break, forcing Donnarumma into a couple of saves in the 50th and 56th minutes.

Substitute Patrick Roberts continued his recovery from injury by going close in the 65th minute, while a half-volley from Marco Benassi three minutes later clipped the bar. Those two soon helped us to equalise through a 74th-minute free-kick after Tousart had been fouled by Silva. Roberts’ floated delivery to the far post was flicked across the goalmouth by Benassi to Bastoni, who justified his selection with a lethal header!

Silva had a chance to make amends for his costly foul nine minutes later, but Lafont caught his header from Ricardo Rodríguez’s corner. With that, the match quickly petered out into a disappointing 1-1 draw. To be honest, I didn’t think we had played well enough to warrant all three points.

Udinese were the only top-four side to win during this round, edging past Pescara by the odd goal in seven. That left the Zebrette just three points behind Fiorentina, but they would need an extra point to overtake us due to our head-to-head records. Udinese did, though, pull themselves further from 4th-placed Juventus, who only drew 2-2 at Spezia.

In 6th place behind Milan were Lazio, who were 2-0 winners at Empoli thanks to a Jesús Corona double. However, the point we’d won in our game mean the Biancocelesti could no longer catch us.

TOP FOUR: Napoli (77), Fiorentina (72), Udinese (69), Juventus (65).

SASSUOLO vs FIORENTINA (Serie A, Match 35)

The first match of this round was between Milan and mid-table SPAL at the San Siro. Were the Rossoneri to lose that fixture, they too would be unable to overtake us in the standings. That in turn would mean…

Oh, Claudio Ranieri, you septuagenarian beauty! Despite falling behind to an early second-half goal from Cutrone, SPAL scored twice in the final 16 minutes to snatch a 2-1 victory! With that, some pressure had been lifted off our shoulders.

We could now concentrate fully on trying to win the scudetto, but a tough challenge awaited us in our next match in Reggio Emilia on Sunday 1 May. Sassuolo might have only taken five points from their last seven fixtures, but Massimo Oddo’s side were fighting for their Serie A lives and were sure to give their all.

Our target for the opening stages was to quickly put Sassuolo on the back foot. Mandzukic couldn’t find the target from a Măţan cross in the seventh minute, but he was on the other end of such a delivery nine minutes later. At first, it looked like Valentin Eysseric might’ve been offside when he chested Mandzukic’s cross and volleyed it home. Then VAR ruled that Neroverdi right-back Claud Adjapong was playing Valentin onside, and so the goal stood!

By the 20th minute, disaster had struck for Sassuolo’s other full-back. Giuseppe Pezzella (no relation to our stricken former captain Germán) failed to get Eysseric’s free-kick out of our box. The ball dipped towards Benassi, who knocked a header down and watched it bounce past goalkeeper Andriy Lunin for 2-0!

Eysseric almost sent us into an extraordinary 3-0 lead in the 29th minute. The energetic Frenchman closed down Sassuolo midfielder Stefano Sensi’s pass to centre-back Edoardo Goldaniga to leave him with just Lunin to beat. He shot far too early, though, and let the hosts off the hook.

Having almost put his team out of the running, Sensi revived their hopes just before half-time. Fiorentina centre-back Yesid Gonzalez – making his first senior appearance since February – could only clear Takumi Minamino’s byline cross as far as Sensi, who nodded it into our box. Emerson tried to remove the danger, but he was beaten by Federico Di Francesco (hipster Eusebio’s lad), whose powerful point-blank finish halved our lead.

Though Lafont kept out a couple of early second-half efforts from Di Francesco (who – unlike his father – didn’t look like he was in The National), panic was slowly setting into our team. I’d brought on the fit-again Federico Chiesa at half-time, but not even our captain’s return could settle us down.

When Tousart’s attempt to give us a 3-1 advantage in the 66th minute was caught by Lunin, Sassuolo sensed our vulnerability. Six minutes later, Sensi was sensing an equaliser. After team-mate Etienne Capoue had been upended by Kevin Diks, the 26-year-old playmaker drove in a 30-yard free-kick. Lafont looked to have the ball covered, but it dipped away from his gloves at just the right time, and our lead was gone.

There was to be more frustration in the 76th minute. Bastoni thought his clinical header from Chiesa’s corner had put us back in front, but the referee’s assistant ruled otherwise. He’d cleverly spotted that Mandzukic had just got his head to the ball from an offside position just before it found the net, and thus the goal was disallowed.

Thanks to that decision, it looked like we would struggle to a costly 2-2 draw… and then Mandzukic transformed from hero to zero in the closing moments of stoppage time. Eysseric’s last-ditch through-ball was weighted perfectly to Mandzukic, who evaded Goldaniga’s slide tackle to collect it before tapping a cool angled finish past Lunin! We had snatched a 3-2 win at the very death!

Had it not been for super Mario, the title race might have effectively been over. Napoli beat Milan 2-1 a few hours later, but their lead – with three games to play – remained at just five points instead of a daunting seven.

Udinese and Juventus also won, as their top scorers continued their pursuit of the Capocannoniere. After Cristiano Ronaldo netted his 17th goal of the Serie A season in Juve’s 3-1 win over Carpi, Facundo Colidio got his 19th for Udinese to complete a 2-0 beating of Spezia.

TOP FOUR: Napoli (80), Fiorentina (75), Udinese (72), Juventus (68).

FIORENTINA vs FROSINONE (Serie A, Match 36)

We were now at that point in the season where any victory for Napoli would leave us with absolutely no room for error. It came as a huge relief, then, to watch SPAL assist us again by grinding out a 1-0 win over the Partenopei on Saturday 7 May. A few hours later, Juventus won 3-1 at Genoa to virtually secure the final Champions League place – and leave their opponents on the brink of relegation.

Napoli’s fourth league defeat this season meant we had a golden opportunity on Sunday afternoon. If we could triumph at the Franchi against Frosinone – who were 19th and with just one away win on their record – we would be just two points off the lead. Simple, right?

If Mandzukic had picked up from where he’d left off at Sassuolo, then it perhaps would’ve been. After just five minutes, Eysseric put a corner into Frosinone’s box, where Rugani and Bastoni flicked it across the six-yard box before Mandzukic tried to seal the deal. Sadly, his header couldn’t get the better of Fraser Forster in the away goal.

Mario would continue to waste chances throughout the first half. His next header – in the 13th minute – was also caught by Forster, while another nodded effort six minutes later missed the target completely. When the Croat tried going for goal with his feet in the 24th minute, Frosinone defender Luka Krajnc got his body in the way.

While the Canarini weren’t quite taking the ‘parked bus’ approach to defending, they were still leaving our attackers very little space. Roberts was finding it especially difficult to break them down, so I called for Chiesa ahead of the second half.

When Cristiano Biraghi whipped a cross to Chiesa at the far post in the 47th minute, it appeared that we’d finally broken through. Then, to my horror, Federico planted his header against the post, and a relieved Frosinone left-back Amedeo Benedetti hacked the rebound out of danger. Chiesa’s anguish was as evident as mine.

The visitors steadily grew more confident, and before long, they were threatening to cause an upset. Though forward Camillo Ciano headed over in the 48th minute, on-loan Southampton midfielder Alex Pritchard almost scored nine minutes later. His blistering 30-yard free-kick stung the palms of Lafont, who eventually secured the ball at the second attempt.

Substitute middleman Raman Chibsah – who scored the winner when Frosinone beat us three seasons ago – then missed opportunities to inflict more misery. It really would have been galling, though, had José Luis Sánchez claimed victory for the Canarini against his parent club. It was probably just as well for JLS’ long-term Fiorentina career that Lafont caught the Belgian striker’s blistering volley seven minutes from time.

We would have one final opportunity to avert a goalless draw in stoppage time. Tonali was tripped by Luca Garritano about 25 yards from goal, which was very much Chiesa territory. The Franchi faithful looked on anxiously as Federico curled his free-kick past the Frosinone wall and beyond Forster’s reach… on its way into the side netting.

Final score: Fiorentina 0, Frosinone 0. Now we really did need snookers.

There was also frustration for Udinese, whose 1-1 draw at Carpi officially ended their slim hopes of a maiden scudetto. Meanwhile, a couple of away wins for Milan (4-1 at Pescara) and Lazio (1-0 at Spezia) secured their places in next season’s Europa League. Atalanta were in pole position to take the final spot, though Inter and Roma were still in contention.

TOP FOUR: Napoli (80), Fiorentina (76), Udinese (73), Juventus (71).

THE PENULTIMATE WEEKEND

After our fourth home draw on the bounce, our fate was now out of our hands. We realistically needed to win our last two matches, while hoping that Napoli collapsed at the most inopportune moment.

On Wednesday 11 May, Napoli went to the Olimpico searching for the first part of what Carlo Ancelotti hoped would be a ‘double’. However, the Coppa Italia Final didn’t go to plan for them. A brace from Rodrigo De Paul secured a 2-1 win for Udinese, and a first major trophy in that club’s 100-year history.

As far as Serie A was concerned, though, one more win would seal the deal for Napoli, whose first shot at glory came on Saturday 14 May. For reasons unknown, the potential title-decider at home to Atalanta had been pushed forward by 24 hours from its initial place in the schedule.

Of course, the Partenopei were still unbeaten at the San Paolo in the league, so the odds were stacked against Atalanta causing an upset. For 90 minutes, though, I would be an honorary supporter of La Dea.

“La tristezza durerà.”

That was Napoli’s first scudetto in 32 years – and I couldn’t really begrudge them it, really. The Partenopei had sat proudly at the top of the standings since late October, and a fantastic home record (Won 17, Drawn 2, Lost 0) had helped keep them there. Ancelotti’s men were more than worthy champions.

Now, a question: how would you define “challenging for the title”?

This will need some context. Before Chiesa signed his current contract two years ago, I’d promised him that we would challenge for the scudetto by the end of 2021/2022. I made the same promise to Touré upon signing him from Monaco back in the summer of 2019.

Neither man thought that Fiorentina taking the championship race to the penultimate weekend was enough to fulfil their promises. As soon as the final whistle blew at the San Paolo, they demanded to speak to me about their futures. They then demanded transfers, so that they could play for a manager who didn’t “break promises”. EXCUSE ME?

Fortunately, the situation was quickly defused. Both Federico and Almamy reluctantly agreed to stay when I questioned whether they really wanted to leave such an excellent dressing-room atmosphere as the one we had. If they’d not responded so positively, I might have had little choice but to call in our part-time UN peace envoy Tousart to try and get them back on side.

Meanwhile, a couple of injury-time goals from Ronaldo inspired Juventus to beat Milan 3-1. That result took them into 3rd place above Udinese, whose 2-1 home defeat to Roma ended their hopes of finishing in the top two.

The situation was now very simple for us. If we could collect just one point from our final two matches, Fiorentina would stay above Juve and finish 2nd in Serie A for the first time in exactly four decades.

CHIEVO vs FIORENTINA (Serie A, Match 37)

Our final away game was at the Marcantonio Bentegodi in Verona, where Chievo hoped to cap off another season of survival with what would be a memorable victory. The Clivensi certainly put a lot of effort into a thrilling first half which saw plenty of attacking actions at both ends.

The midway point of the opening period would be packed full of goals. We were first to find the net, after 24 minutes. Roberts’ corner delivery was headed out of the box by Ivan Michelotti, but that only offered Chievo’s defence temporary respite. Benassi took the ball on the bounce and then half-volleyed in his fifth goal of the Serie A season. He hadn’t reached that landmark since his maiden season at Fiorentina, in 2017/2018.

Barely a minute later, though, Chievo had got themselves back level through a corner of their own. Tom Cleverley’s set-piece was nodded on by midfield colleague Nicola Rigoni to striker Wout Weghorst, whose shot was blocked by Lafont. The Dutchman’s Danish strike partner Kenneth Zohore – a former Fiorentina youth player, no less – lashed in the rebound, and it was 1-1…

…until the 30th minute. When Chievo left-back Pawel Jaroszynski was tripped by Fiorentina right-back Diks, the hosts won a free-kick about 35 yards from goal. Cleverley provided a clever delivery from the left flank that Michelotti nodded across goal for Weghorst to tap it in. Improbably, we were 2-1 down!

Chievo had wiped out our lead in no time, and we did the same to them less than a minute later. Benassi provided the assist for Eysseric, who dribbled into the ‘D’ before furiously swerving an excellent strike beyond keeper David Ospina.

That incredible spell of goalscoring ended there, with Ospina making a couple of strong saves to prevent Roberts and Eysseric reinstating our advantage before half-time. Paddy would eventually get the better of the Colombian veteran 10 minutes into the second period. His header from Biraghi’s left-wing cross just about bounced underneath Ospina’s dive, and we now led 3-2.

The Clivensi didn’t know when they were beaten, though. Had Lafont not got his gloves to a vicious drive from Weghorst in the 57th minute, the game might well have seen its third equaliser.

When the scoreline did change again after 67 minutes, it showed that we were now 4-2 up. Ospina pushed away a blistering strike from Biraghi, and Jaroszynski threw himself in front of Roberts’ follow-up, but Mandzukic was able to make it third time lucky. Our leading goalscorer now had 14 for the campaign.

Despite Chievo’s best efforts in the latter stages, we never really looked like squandering our 23rd victory of the season – a new club record. I was also able to give our visiting supporters a glimpse of the future, with 18-year-old midfielder Damiano Lodi Rizzini replacing Benassi late on for his senior Fiorentina debut.

2nd place it was, then. Fiorentina hadn’t finished that high in Italy’s top flight since 1981/1982, so I guess I had to take it.

Meanwhile, the three relegation places were all filled up. Spezia returned to Serie B after losing 3-1 at Torino, while Frosinone and Genoa sealed their own fates by drawing 1-1. Frosinone were still within three points of 17th-placed Empoli, but the Azzurri had taken four points off them in their head-to-heads.

TOP FOUR: Napoli (83), Fiorentina (79), Juventus (74), Udinese (73).

FIORENTINA vs CARPI (Serie A, Match 38)

And so, after four trophyless seasons at Fiorentina, this was the end. My 188th and final match as Viola manager took place on Sunday 22 May 2022. We were at home to Carpi, who had done tremendously well to keep themselves in the top flight following last season’s unexpected promotion. Ironically, the head coach in the away dugout was the same man whom I’d succeeded at the Franchi – a certain Stefano Pioli.

With absolutely no pressure on us, I could freely blood some of our younger attackers. 18-year-old Michel Cecci and 17-year-old Alberto Scotta started on the left and right flanks on their full Fiorentina debuts, with 22-year-old Dusan Vlahovic leading the line.

Vlahovic’s game didn’t get off to the best of starts in the fifth minute, when he blazed a shot over the crossbar. A minute later, ex-Viola left-back David Hancko came close to creating a shock opening goal for Carpi. His cross was flicked towards goal by frontman Andrea Arrighini, but André Onana just about diverted it over the bar.

That was pretty much how the entire first half panned out. While our raw youngsters gave Carpi goalie Simone Colombi very little to worry about, Onana was kept on his toes by the visitors rather more regularly. Flamboyant forward Alessio Zerbin and tireless midfielder Malick Mbaye each had decent efforts inside our box just before half-time, both of which were stopped by our backup keeper.

Though Chiesa replaced Vlahovic at half-time to add experience to the Fiorentina frontline, our teenagers continued to struggle. Cecci was booked in the 47th minute and would soon be replaced with Măţan, having not mustered a single shot on target. Scotta did get three on target after the break, but two of them were long-range punts that Colombi made simple work of. The odd one out was a header from a 74th-minute Chiesa free-kick, but Colombi kept that out too.

I had made my final substitution after 72 minutes, and it was more of a sentimental change than anything. Taking Gonzalez’s place at centre-half was none other than our former captain Germán Pezzella. It had been nearly six months since Pezzella was diagnosed with a serious viral infection, but the popular Argentinian had now been given the all-clear to resume his career.

While Germán’s return gave a huge boost to a Viola defence which kept its 20th clean sheet of the league season, it couldn’t inspire us to victory. With Carpi’s rearguard refusing to yield, no matter what we tried to prise it open, another home draw looked inevitable. The final whistle confirmed that my time in Italy had ended with a whimper.

Statistically, Fiorentina had never enjoyed a better season in Serie A. We had certainly never won as many games (23) or collected as many points (80). However, a run of five consecutive draws at the Franchi (including four 0-0s) left us wondering what might have been had we been more clinical in front of goal.

Napoli finished six points clear at the top after a 2-1 win at Roma, who missed out on European football again. Juventus secured 3rd place after Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-minute penalty at Sassuolo, which – incidentally – earned him the Capocannoniere. Ronaldo finished level on 20 goals with Colidio, but the 37-year-old had played fewer matches than his Udinese counterpart, hence he took the award. It would surely take pride of place on his mantlepiece alongside this beauty.

Udinese had to make do with 4th, despite completing a historic campaign by beating Atalanta 3-2 in Bergamo. Lazio and Milan were joined in next season’s Europa League by Inter, who salvaged at least something from a dreadful league campaign by winning 2-0 at Spezia. However, that was not enough to spare Inter’s two-time title-winning coach Luciano Spalletti the sack, after five years in charge.

Well… that was not how I wanted my time at Fiorentina to end. What a bitter disappointment.

I would like to thank everybody who has taken the time to read this maiden story on Fuller FM. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it. There will be one final Season Review post later in the week, in which I will summarise the 2021/2022 campaign and my Fiorentina reign as a whole.

As it so happens, The Wide Playmaker has also been in a title challenge with his Fiorentina team. He posted up the latest chapter of his “Florence And The Goal Machine” career earlier today. Head on over there to see if he can achieve what I couldn’t – by delivering the scudetto to the Franchi.

“Forza viola!” 

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1 thought on “Shades of Deep Purple: Part 42 – IL FINALE

  1. totalfootball71

    It’s been an absolute pleasure reading about your journey with the Viola, I have read each part and enjoyed every minute of it.
    Managing Fiorentina myself I have found inspiration from this journey and am sad that this is the final part however I will be following your next series with interest. I wish you could have rounded off a great final season with the Scudetto.
    I thank you for your mentions and wish you all the best in your next save….. Forza Viola 🇮🇹

    Reply

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