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Empoli vs. Fiorentina: Final Score 2-3, Ilicic and Salah seal huge points

It wasn't the best Viola performance, but it didn't have to be to reclaim 5th place in Serie A

Ilicic celebrates his second. Photo
Ilicic celebrates his second. Photo
Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Empoli 2 - FIORENTINA 3

(Ilicic 4', Saponara 28', Salah 57', Ilicic 68', Mchedlidze 77')

Fiorentina traveled the short ride to Empoli knowing that only 3 points would do against their envious neighbors, and thankfully the Viola were able to walk away with a huge win ahead of the final 3 games of the Serie A season. Vincenzo Montella rotated the squad considerably after the big defeat to Sevilla on Thursday, while Maurizio Sarri stuck with his trusted 4-3-1-2, with on-loan Fiorentina midfielder Matias Vecino starting. Montella selected David Pizarro to start in midfield, and gave Federico Bernardeschi a start to finalize his return from injury.

The Viola couldn't have started the game better, immediately finding the opening goal through a corner kick scheme for form man Josip Ilicic. The Slovenian's powerful and uncontested left footed strike put Fiorentina in the driver's seat inside the first 5 minutes. But despite the positive beginning, the visiting attack found it difficult to create clear chances. Empoli, on the other hand, quietly took the field back, and after already getting behind the Viola defense once, Riccardo Saponara took his second chance, thanks partly to a lucky ricochet and partly to unconvincing defending. Fiorentina improved slightly after the home team equalized, but Ilicic and Bernardeschi weren't able to link up much, and Alberto Gilardino was largely outside of the play.

The second half started a bit sleepily, especially from the Viola perspective. Montella's halftime substitution of Salah for Bernardeschi didn't bear immediate fruit, and it was the home side that grew back into the game. Saponara had another chance after Salah lost the ball trying to start a counter, but he fired wide. Then, out of nothing, Ilicic sent Salah away down the middle, and the crafty Egyptian was able to bamboozle both Empoli central defenders and slide a left footed finish past Luigi Sepe to put Fiorentina in the lead once again. Montella opted to take the opportunity to change things up a bit, taking a tired Gilardino off and putting on a lively Matias Fernandez. Mati was instrumental in creating the third Fiorentina goal, finding the byline and cutting it back to Salah, who fluffed his shot, but the rebound fell to Ilicic, who buried the bouncing ball through traffic with the ease of a player clearly "feeling it." Empoli showed great spirit - as they have all season, to be fair - in not letting their heads drop after the third goal; Sarri's side immediately found a reaction, first coming close with substitute Piotr Zielinski, then finding a goal through another substitute, Levan Mchedlidze. The young Georgian attacker quite embarrassed Stefan Savic and Jose Maria Basanta in getting his shot away, surprising Neto, who could have perhaps done better. Neto was quick to redeem himself, however, with an excellent save to preserve the win on a low Mirko Valdifiori free kick with little left in regulation. When the full time whistle blew Montella was uncharacteristically exultant, as was Pizarro; the team perhaps needed this win more for their confidence than the Serie A standings.

Despite the importance of the victory, attention in the post-match analysis immediately turns to the game in Florence on Thursday. "We'll need the same cynicism that we demonstrated today," said Montella in his quietly brilliant post-game press conference. The Viola boss spoke on his celebration at full time: "Today we won with our quality but also with our sacrifice at the end. I saw this as a very difficult game, able to give a [final] direction to our campaign. I felt strongly about the game both because of the opponent and because of the moment in the season. I think the team deserves 5th." Montella went on to speak more specifically on the upcoming second leg against Sevilla: "We will need a great inner certainty, something that I have. Maybe a bit of luck. I have the duty to impress my conviction on the team. Naturally it's difficult, it'd be a feat, but we believe."