Where We Are
Last weekend's loss at home against Inter put a heavy damper on Fiorentina having just earned their first Coppa Italia final in over a decade. Now the team will hopefully find some solace in the competition that has been kindest to la Viola all season, the Europa League. Fiorentina finished their Group E campaign undefeated, with 5 wins and 1 draw, winning their group comfortably with 16 points.
Vincenzo Montella (unsurprisingly) has many difficult selections to make ahead of kickoff. Gonzalo Rodriguez sustained a minor muscular injury on Saturday and will miss the next two matches, while Juan Cuadrado will also miss this game due to a strain (although he should return for the weekend's Serie A action). Juan Manuel Vargas had to undergo surgery on a broken bone in his hand, and is likely to miss about a month, while Massimo Ambrosini, Nenad Tomovic, Mario Gomez and Stefan Savic are all just returning from injury and will be at various levels in their conditioning.
Factor in the generally unknown fatigue levels of players like Matias Fernandez, David Pizarro, Joaquin, or Alberto Aquilani, and the lineup becomes quite difficult to predict. Facundo Roncaglia is expected to return to a starting role in the defensive lineup on the opposite side of Manuel Pasqual, while a midfield that could feature Marko Bakic will definitely showcase a fresh Borja Valero, back from back to back games off for yellow card accumulation. The forward line is similar difficult to predict, but Gomez will start from the bench, and there may be room for recently exciting Fiorentina primavera attacking winger Nicolo Fazzi, perhaps as a late substitute.
Where They Are
Coach Niels Frederiksen has had an odd first season at the helm of Esbjerg fB. They sit in the relegation places of the Danish Superliga, but are still managing a positive goal difference. Under him Esbjerg have also made it to the elimination rounds of the Europa League, although they were in arguably the weakest group in the competition. Esbjerg finished second in Group C, one of the four groups with no team from a "big 4" league (England, Spain, Italy, Germany) and losing both matches to the eventual group winner FC Salzburg by an "aggregate" of 5-1.
Frederiksen's side may be well-rested in this match, having not played a competitive game since December 12th of 2013 (a 3-0 defeat away to Salzburg), but they might also be a bit rusty. In his press conference Montella described the Danish side as a team similar to Grasshoppers, that is to say disciplined, athletic, and good at attacking space with speed, especially on the wings. Keep an eye out for 21 year old Mick van Buren, Esbjerg's leading scorer.
It would have been difficult for Fiorentina to have a kinder draw, and while all occasions do seem to inform against Fiorentina lately, perhaps this is a good opportunity for some "dull revenge" (Act 4, Scene 4). If Montella gets the team right, and Borja Valero is inspired, there really seems to be only one direction that this match can go. However, the team is hopefully being mindful of underestimating the opponent. It would be great if the return leg at the Franchi is a bit of a dead rubber, and we can focus on the two league matches we have to play in the next ten days.
"O, from this time forth, / [Let our] thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" -- Gomez, probably
Esbjerg (4-4-2): Ronnow; P. Ankersen, Hansen, Drobo-Ampem, Knudsen; J. Ankersen, Andreasen, Lekven, Lyng; van Buren, Bakenga
FIORENTINA (4-3-3): Neto; Roncaglia, Tomovic, Compper, Pasqual; Ambrosini, Pizarro, Borja Valero; Joaquin, Matri, Ilicic