Yesterday's fixture away to Villarreal felt like the beginning of the season to some (myself included). With this summer's important additions and the strong but bittersweet finish to last season, Viola faithful were excited to see their team once again under bright lights playing against worthy opposition.
But it is very important to remember that this wasn't the beginning of the season. The 2-0 chastening at the hands of the Yellow Submarine in the Ceramica Trophy match was in fact only a friendly against a team who is returning to its former heights and playing passionately in front of a home crowd. So why was it so disappointing?
The answer lies partly in the naivety displayed by both the team and the fans. Fiorentina came out flatfooted, played slow and sloppily in possession, and also reacted slowly defensively to the dynamic running of the Villarreal midfield. We were disorganized in the defensive line, and couldn't seem to figure out how to get Mario Gomez the ball in the box. Similarly, the fans should not have expected a finished product. After a glorious retreat at Moena and a strong but bittersweet finish to last season, we entered this game expecting a complete team running on all cylinders, and were instead a bit miffed by what we saw instead.
Anything else make this loss sting a bit? Well, there's the fact that Villarreal played us off the park. Sure, the team is still yet to reach full physical condition, but Vincenzo Montella did not use this as an excuse post-match. "I don't think Villarreal was ahead of us in terms of preparation" he reported to firenzeviola.it, before going on to say that the team showed "a lack of concentration" and accusing them of "running, but not as a team." Montella's observations are clever to point out that more than "fitness" went wrong at the Madrigal yesterday, although this was apparent to anyone who saw the match.
The same mental and tactical holes that the 'mister' emphasized yesterday are the ones that we can hope (expect?) to see improved on Sunday against Sporting in Portugal. To avoid wheeling out tired tropes, I will not say that Fiorentina got "humbled," because again, this was a friendly. But the match did show that the areas for improvement are clear, as is the different level of focus, consistency, and intensity that this team needs to sustain in order to succeed in a major European competition.
Today the Europa League draw was made, and Fiorentina will play Swiss Cup winners Grasshoppers on August 22nd in Zurich and again in Florence on August 29th. There is some history between the two sides, most notably during the 1998/99 season, when Fiorentina faced them in the UEFA Cup knockout rounds. That team, led by Batistuta, Rui Costa, Toldo, and Edmundo, among others, was leading the second leg in Italy after winning 0-2 in Zurich when a homemade bomb was thrown at the assistant referee. UEFA's controversial decision was to punish Fiorentina for the crowd's actions and expel them from the competition (they did this by declaring the return leg a 0-3 win for the Swiss club).
There is already chatter of "revenge," let alone the talk of progressing deep into the Europa League... But if there is one thing we learned from the game in Spain, it was the most tired sporting trope of all tired sporting tropes: to keep our feet on the ground, and take it one game at a time.