It looked like Paulo Sousa named a 4-3-1-2, which drew groans from some fans as that shape—and that tridente in particular—had produced some doze-inducing football a few days earlier. The Czechs came out in a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1, as everyone had predicted.
Both sides started out a bit scrappy, which certainly suited Slovan. Fiorentina were completely unable to string a couple of passes together. Nikola Kalinic did get in behind the defense in the opening 90 seconds, though, in a preview of what was to come. Indeed, it only took him until the 8th minute to get on the scoresheet; Sebastian Cristoforo pressured the Liberec defense high up, and the ball fell to Khouma Babacar, whose deflected dink over the top dropped right in Kalinic’s path. The Croat lashed home on the half-volley to put Fiorentina into the lead.
Fiorentina settled down a bit after that, although the formation was certainly strange: it looked like Sebastian Cristoforo was operating as a right wingback, but with permission to drift inside whenever he wanted. Anyways, it was 11 minutes in when Borja Valero picked up the ball on the left and found Nikola Kalinic in acres of space on the right, but the striker’s first-time strike was miles wide.
Liberec began to grow into the half, though, pressing forward and winning several corners. Their threat off of set pieces was, as we reported, considerable, and they produced a number of clever routines to force Tata into saves. Kalinic, though, netted his second in the 23rd. The Viola put together a wonderful passing move, cycling the ball across the pitch until Davide Astori found space to put one over the top. Goalkeeper Martin Dubravka and defender Ondrej Karafiat miscommunicated over who was supposed to get the ball, leaving Kalinic free to nip and tuck the ball into an empty net.
Liberec threatened off of several more set pieces, forcing Tata into action on a handful of occasions, and Borja played a mind-bendingly lovely ball into Babacar in the box which the Senegalese striker cut back for Kalinic, but his fellow forward was unable to corral it for a shot. The half ended 0-2 with Fiorentina in control, although Liberec had looked threatening.
Paulo Sousa didn’t gee his men up at the start of the second half and it showed. The Czechs pinned Fiorentina back for the first 15 minutes after the whistle, winning free kicks and corners which the Viola just barely dealt with. Sousa brought Cristian Tello on at 51’ for Kalinic, with Valero going wide left in a 4-3-3, but disaster struck shortly after. Gonzalo mishit a simple clearance back over his own goal (nearly chipping it over his own baffled goalkeeper), and on the ensuing corner, Liberec flicked a header on at the near post. Tata made an athletic save, but only punched the ball into the path of an unmarked Petr Sevcik on the back post, and the midfielder duly slotted home to half the deficit and give the home side a well-earned glimmer of hope.
Sensing the danger, Sousa yanked off Cristoforo and brought on Federico Bernardeschi to provide more threat on the counter, with Borja dropping back into midfield. However, the usually reliable Ciprian nearly gave Liberec a freebie when he lit out from the area to try and clear a long ball, which he missed completely. The Czech attacker ran it down on the right sideline and crossed it in with doing well to pressure him. Milan Badelj eventually cleared it with Tata still trying to return to the net. He regained his composure, though, with a nice save on a sharply-struck shot from a free kick.
However, it was the Viola who got the next one. Tello’s pressure on Liberec leftback Lukas Bartosak resulted in the ball dropping to Valero, who drove forward on the break and fed Tello into the box in the right channel. The Spaniard centered for Babacar, who easily converted the chance to restore a two-goal lead in the 70th minute. Sousa opted to bring on Carlos Sanchez for Babacar a few minutes later to solidify things, leading to an amorphous shape with no striker and 4 central midfielders. It was still nearly enough to send Tello clear in the 80th minute, but he somehow didn’t get a whistle despite the defender wrapping arms around him. However, Radim Breite got himself a second booking in the 82nd minute, and that pretty much wrapped up the match.
Don’t be fooled by the scoreline. Fiorentina outpossessed Liberec 54% to 46%, but the Czechs had 21 shots as opposed to 10 for our Tuscan heroes. A strong match from Tatarusanu saved the bacon, and the Liberec defense was disastrous, as it has been all year. A couple of different bounces, though, and this could have been a very different result. Still, a win (and a pair of goals for confidence-bereft Nikola Kalinic) is a good thing.
Tatarusanu: 7—Nearly gave up a howler, but was otherwise brilliant and kept the Viola in the match as his defense fell apart.
Tomovic: 6—Vintage Nenad. Stuck to his man, but got beaten a couple of times to terrify the tifosi and earned a booking for a professional foul to stop a break. Also nearly nabbed a late goal.
Gonzalo: 6.5—Still looks a step slower than usual, and didn’t organize his backline well at all. Might be time to give him a rest every once in awhile.
Astori: 7.5—Got an assist and had another couple of excellent passes, too. Was big in defense as well, although he did fall asleep once or twice. Still, an overall good showing for the Italian international.
Olivera: 6.5—Got up and down the touchline well, and even played in a few halfway-decent crosses. Also made one or two key defensive interventions. May need more time to settle in, but sure looks superior to Milic.
Cristoforo: 6—Energetic, but never looked like he was on the same page as everyone else. Again, it’s probably just a matter of settling in and getting to know his teammates, as the quality is there to see.
Vecino: 6.5—Bustled around the midfield nicely, but misplaced a few too many passes. Still working his way back from injury, so some rust is to be expected, but he may have shined it all off now.
Badelj: 6.5—His usual self at the back. Always in the right place, excellent at keeping possession, but as good for a few heart-in-mouth giveaways as ever.
Valero: 7.5—Was a bit slow in the final third with his decision-making, but was still integral to the attack and was the only player on the pitch who was willing and able to slow things down and take control of the match.
Babacar: 7.5—His strength, length, and pace made him a handful for a Liberec defense that probably doesn’t see a lot of players like him. More involved in the buildup than usual, as well as his goal and assist.
Kalinic: 8—Caused the defense problems all night with his outstanding movement. It was only Slovan Liberec, but looked as decisive and predatory as his old self.
Tello: 7—Got an assist and seemed like threat to make something good happen every time he touched the ball.
Bernardeschi: 6—Didn’t see much of the ball, and didn’t do a lot with it when he did.
Sanchez: n/a—Did have a boneheaded moment, but was otherwise fine and solid.