We've said this before, but whoo doggies does this feel like a trap game. As capolista taking on a 13th-place local rival coming off an international break, Viola fans are surely anxious, even though Paulo Sousa has done a good job of keeping the team on task after a layoff. In 22 meetings between the teams, Fiorentina are W13 D6 L3.
Given that the Gigliati have broken the international curse, Paulo Sousa probably isn't as worried about this one as we are. After all, he's led his charges to the top of the table, and has them playing as if they belong there. This one will be tricky, though, against a determined opponent who knows how to win at the Artemio Franchi. Sousa also has some personnel problems, especially on the right wing: Jakub Błaszczykowski tweaked his knee on international duty with Poland and will miss a minimum of three weeks. With a crucial Europa League game at Basel on Sunday, Sousa could opt to rest Federico Bernardeschi and instead use Ante Rebic, who's suspended for the Basel game anyways. Mati Fernandez is also training separately from the team this week after a nick picked up with Chile, so he may be out as well.
It's nearly a third of the way through the season, and the Azzurri sit in a surprising 13th place. Located just a half-hour train ride away from Florence, Empoli have a long-standing rivalry with their larger neighbors. Last season, they managed a 1-1 draw at the Franchi, with goals courtesy of Juan Vargas and Lorenzo Tonelli; they lost the return match 2-3 later that year. They'll be very familiar with Fiorentina, given the amount of personnel trafficking between the two: Matías Vecino spent last season there on loan, and they have two former Fiorentina prospects in Michele Camporese and Luca Bittante. Empoli has also fielded a murderer's row of former Viola standouts, including Vincenzo Montella, Luca Toni, and Dario Dainelli.
Manager Marco Giampaolo has done an excellent job. Appointed this summer, he's used a 4-3-1-2 to pretty good effect, taking 7 points out of their past five matches (with losses to AS Roma and Juventus). He'll have to do without trequartista and leading scorer Riccardo Saponara, as well as midfieler Daniele Croce (calf) and striker Levan Mchedlidze (hamstring). Striker Manuel Pucciarelli, however, is expected to be fully healthy. In Saponara's absence, the dangerman is, of course, Massimo Maccarone, who is 36 years old, slow, not particularly big or strong, and consistently bangs in goals against Fiorentina. Still love him, though.
Luca Banti will be the man with the whistle. In the 22 Viola matches he's officiated, the Gigliati have won 11, drawn 5, and lost 6. He was in charge of the 2-1 loss at Napoli in October, which is the only one he's handled this year. Last season, he oversaw the 1-1 draw at AC Milan, the 1-1 draw against Roma, the 2-0 win against Sampdoria, and the 3-2 loss at Juventus.
Fiorentina (3-4-2-1): Tatarusanu; Roncaglia, Gonzalo, Astori; Rebic, Badelj, Vecino, Alonso; Valero, Ilicic; Kalinic
Empoli (4-3-1-2): Skorupski; Laurini, Tonelli, Costa, Rui; Zielinksi, Maiello, Paredes; Krunic; Maccarone, Pucciarelli
How to watch
TV: Surprisingly good coverage for this one. Check out Sky in Italy and BeIn Sports in the USA.
Online: For a full list of viewing options, look here. As always, we'll have a match thread live here for discussion of the game at hand. You can also follow along with us live on Twitter, and we'll have updates of the most important events on our Facebook page. And dang it, don't post illegal streams of the game, because we'll delete them and ban you if you keep doing it.
Shameless homer prediction
I'm predicting a 3-1 win for the good guys, with an Ilicic penalty, a Kalinic tap in, and a ridiculous Roncaglia blast. And there's no way that Maccarone doesn't score, because he always seems to score against Fiorentina.
That's all, folks. The wait for Fiorentina football is nearly over. Forza Viola.