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Fiorentina 1 - PAOK 1: Record Muddied But Qualification Secured

What should have been a comfortable result almost became a horrifying loss before captain Manuel Pasqual scored a sumptuous free kick in the 88th minute.

Gabriele Maltinti

Looking at the chances created and the general flow of the game, Fiorentina probably deserved a win against PAOK at the Artemio Franchi Thursday night, but in the end they were lucky that the visitors didn't abscond with all three points.

The first half started slowly before roaring into Fiorentina-domination. PAOK had one decent chance in the first 45', when Facundo Pereyra split our centerbacks and collected a counterattacking through ball, but shot over and wide from close range. Otherwise, all the chances were at the one defended by the visitors. Pizarro, Gonzalo, and Kurtic used the natural width provided by Cuadrado, Pasqual, and Vargas to great effect, spraying balls wide and pulling the Greek defenders all over the place. Mario Gomez, fresh off of a month-long absence, was active and involved in the play, but clearly needs another couple weeks to find where he left his shooting boots before his injury. Early on Mario was nearly able to volley the keeper from a nearly impossible angle, and then nearly redirected a Manuel Pasqual free kick on frame soon after. Then Juan Cuadrado sent a beautiful long ball to Juan Manuel Vargas, whose first-time square pass reaches Gomez, but the German volleyed just wide alone in front of the keeper. It was errors such as this one that drew the attention of the Italian media on the big man's return, but I (and many other fans) saw a lively, involved, and fit Gomez for the first time since preseason... A near-miracle considering he has just returned from injury.

The first half chances didn't stop there though. Gomez turned provider in the next chance, flicking on to Vargas who hit with typical power but right at the keeper Glykos. Cuadrado then scooped a ball over the top to Mario, whose diving header wasn't quite strong enough to make it past the sprawling keeper. Cuadrado then wasted a breakaway before halftime. The second half didn't quite feature the thrills or fluid attacking from Fiorentina, but the team woke up a bit when Marko Marin made his Viola debut, coming on for Andrea Lazzari. He and Gomez connected soon into his debut leading to a wide snapshot, and Marin also set Cuadrado racing through with a clever first-time reverse ball in midfield, but the Colombian wanted to long to decide to shoot or pass. With the Fiorentina imprecision growing, the defense got into the action, with an absolute horror show by both centerbacks leading to a tap in go-ahead goal.

Baffled and with heads down, last substitute Khouma Babacar won a good free kick just outside the box which Pasqual curled home with aplomb. The game finished 1-1, leaving Fiorentina already qualified for the Round of 32, but with the game's missed opportunities and fan pessimism coloring the view ahead to Napoli on Sunday. I prefer to be encouraged by the first half and the brightness of play, and hope that can be present from the first minute at the weekend as well.