Fiorentina bounced back from their defeat against Paris Saint-Germain to beat Benfica 5-4 in penalty kicks, after 90 minutes of dramatic 0-0 action. In reality, the performance wasn't far removed from the previous loss, with plenty of good and bad to dissect.
For roughly 20 minutes, Fiorentina dominated play, with the strikers failing to capitalize on good chances created by Joaquin, Borja Valero, and Vecino. Josip Ilicic came close to scoring a few times, while Khouma Babacar was notably ineffective.
After that, Benfica increased their physical play, which took Valero out of the game and allowed them to dominate possesion for a bit, exploiting Fiorentina's defensive vulnerabilities. Benfica started to use their speed to exploit Marcos Alonso and Jose Maria Basanta in particular, players who responded with nasty fouls of their own. The surprising chippiness continued to the point where the refs started to lose control. Gonzalo probably should have been sent off around the 28th minute after a nasty stomp on Talisca; he was lucky to get away with a yellow.
Fiorentina remained on their heels until the last 5 minutes of the first half, although the game remained 0-0 at half time. The one change going into the second half was a disappointing Babacar being replaced by Giuseppe Rossi.
The second half was a less violent affair, featuring plenty of back and forth action but no goals, with Fiorentina arguably getting the bulk of chances. After 55 minutes, both teams started to make substitutions resulting in something of a disjointed but exciting game.
Mario Suarez made his Fiorentina debut 72 minutes in, replacing Federico Bernardeschi in what turned out to be a promising cameo.
After 93 mintues, the game went to penalties. Despite Fiorentina's struggle from the spot last season, they went 5 for 5 in a convincing fashion, with Manuel Pasqual, Milan Badelj, Ilicic, Ante Rebic, and debutant Suarez all converting. 20 year old keeper Luca Lezzerini got to play hero in the end, saving a shot by Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez to win it for la Viola.
Three Things We Learned
1. If Fiorentina wants to use a 3 man back line, we need a bit of help. I'm partisan for using a 3 player backline, at least in certain situations, and I'm very encouraged by Sousa's continued use of the formation, pushing the fullbacks up into midfield. Sousa once again started with a Montella-esque deployment of Tomovic, Gonzalo, and Basanta in the back line, with Alosno serving as the not-quite-wingback midfielder, a modern varation of the halfback.
The problem is, Montella was able to get away with this as he always had at least two starting-quality CBs in Gonzalo and Savic. Without the latter, more responsibility is put on Basanta and Tomovic, who are fine backups but that's it. Tomovic had a decent game, but as always is unexceptional at everything. I will defend Basanta as a backup, but fast players expose him and leave him to consistently make stupid fouls, which lead to a few near-disasters against Benfica. Alonso meanwhile has talent but continues to make poor decisions. It is clear that Gonzalo now desperately needs help back there before he murders someone.
2. The goalkeeper position is not something to be concerned about. While the club was left in an unfortunate position thanks to the betrayals of a certain Brazilian keeper, keeper doesn't appear to be an area of weakness right now. Newly acquired loan starlet Luigi Seppe had a promising debut, making good saves when called upon, and Primavera goaltender and future prospect Luca Lezzerini did everything you could ask of a 20 year old, including. Ciprian Tatarusanu has previously shown he is worthy to at least compete for the starting job, giving Fiorentina healthy competition between the sticks.
3. Everyone wants to get the ball to Joaquin. Every time Fiorentina appeared out of ideas, the default move appeared to be to get the ball to Joaquin on the right side. Although the Spaniard was typically unable to cut inward, he was dangerous every time he had the ball, and was able to avoid Benfica's attempts to use physical play to push him out of the game.
While part of this trend might be Sousa's early attempts to generate more chances from the wings, it is also concerning that throughout preseason, we have been relying on a 34 year old winger and a striker coming off multiple knee surgeries for our most effective attacks.
Fiorentina's United States adventure comes to an end, but the International Champions Cup continues on Sunday, August 2, as Fiorentina is set to face FC Barcelona in Florence at 9:00 CET. This will be the first chance for the new(ish) look Fiorentina to face elite competition back at the Franchi.