After Sunday's anything-but-pretty win away in Napoli, the door into the third Champions League place has creaked open by the tiniest of margins, and who should come limping into Florence but the very team that snatched that same Champions League place from Fiorentina last season. That's right, Milan are coming to town, bringing with them bags of narrative, but with little to show for their glamorous and controversial finish to last season.
Fiorentina, it must be said, are also limping, in many senses of the word. The consecutive wins against Chievo and Napoli in Serie A snapped a long sequence of poor results, but in unconvincing fashion. A big win against a struggling Milan could be a great statement of intent and a launchpad for the end of the season.
Injuries - more so than even creative refereeing decisions - have played a hefty part in our dire February, and are still rolling in. A fresh knee injury to Mario Gomez is thankfully not as serious as the one he sustained on the other knee in the fall, and he will hopefully be back for the big game against Roma in mid-April; unfortunately that still leaves la Viola to choose between horrendously out-of-sorts Alessandro Matri and young and raw Ryder Matos to lead the attack. The midfield looked a bit tired in Naples after being unable to catch their breath from the triple matchup against Juventus, and David Pizarro has sustained a knock that rules him out until Sunday (he will hopefully be available for Sampdoria away). Matias Fernandez and Juan Manuel Vargas are also being evaluated for tonight's match.
So Vincenzo Montella's hands are tied a bit, but not so much that he can't field a reasonably strong lineup. There is a sense that the team is in dire need of some tactical continuity at the moment, and a 4-3-3 is favored at the moment not only for this match, but going forward as well.
As far as Milan goes, Clarence Seedorf is finding out what a tricky business this whole "coaching" thing is, especially in Serie A, and even more super duper especially at one of the biggest clubs in Italy having one of their worst seasons in recent memory. The Dutchman's team is hovering in 12th place, just above Udinese and level on points with Genoa; their form guide makes for interesting reading: DLLLL. That said, this will unlikely be a walk in the park for Fiorentina, facing an increasingly desperate foe with some international talent at their disposal.
Important absences remain for Milan, however, with club captain (Is he still captain? Really? Really really?) Riccardo Montolivo sidelined alongside Mattia De Sciglio and Ignazio Abate with minor injuries. Andrea Poli is also serving a one-match suspension, so Seedorf has few choices central midfield and the wide defensive areas. An amusing selection problem arises, with Daniele Bonera slightly favored over Cristian Zaccardo to go against... Cuadrado. Mario Balotelli does return to the starting lineup for Milan, and, whatever you may say about his character, he remains one of the most potentially dangerous strikers in Italy; Gonzalo Rodriguez will have to bring his best play for 90' against him.
Tactically, Montella's 4-3-3 should allow Fiorentina to have superiority both wide and in the middle of the field when in possession, with neither Keisuke Honda nor Adel Taarabt offering much in terms of added defensive cover for Milan's vulnerable defenders. Milan's defensive midfield partnership of Sully Muntari and Nigel De Jong will also have a tough time positionally if Borja Valero has the added movement of Josip Ilicic or Mati Fernandez to accompany him. However, we will have to be very aware of Milan's ability on the counterattack, with Kaka, Taarabt, and Balotelli most dangerous when space is presented to them (which we probably will do). If it stays close towards the end of the game, watch out for ex-Viola Giampaolo Pazzini off the bench.
Many reasons to be optimistic, and many reasons to quiver in fear of a very demoralizing result. Let's hope Fiorentina can get their groove going early, establish dominance in midfield, and maybe even bag an early gol del ex from Matri. The Artemio Franchi will be fired up yet again for what has become a sort-of "derby" the last two seasons, and many of the Fiorentina players in particular will feel even more personally invested in this game than a game against Juventus, given the events at the end of last season. FORZA VIOLA, BIG THREE POINTS TO BE HAD!
FIORENTINA (4-3-3) Neto; Tomovic, Gonzalo, Savic, Pasqual; Ambrosini, Aquilani, Borja Valero; Ilicic, Matri, Cuadrado
Milan (4-2-3-1) Abbiati; Bonera, Rami, Mexes, Constant; De Jong, Muntari; Honda, Kaka, Taarabt; Balotelli