With whistles of derision from last Sunday's performance against Atalanta perhaps still ringing in his ears, Paulo Sousa opted to twist his strategy. Digging deep into his tactical box of tricks, the Portuguese coach came out fighting, sending his team out in a 4-3-1-2 formation. Lining up on the right side of a back four, Nenad Tomovic returned to the first eleven, whereas on the left side of the back line Maxi Olivera was given his third consecutive start in the Europa League. The central defensive pairing of Gonzalo Rodriguez and Davide Astori completed the back four. Clipping the wings of his side, Sousa employed a defensive midfield trio comprising Milan Badelj, Sebastien Cristoforo and Matias Vecino, with Borja Valero free to roam in front of the narrow bank of three. Up front Khouma Babacar and Nikola Kalinic were once again given the opportunity to show that they could both fruitfully coexist in the same line-up.
It did not take long for the Viola to assert themselves. Nikola Kalinic fired the visitors into a 1-0 lead in the eighth minute. The Croatian forward made the most of a rather fortuitous deflection that left him clear of the defence with only the keeper to beat. The ball bounced up nicely for the Viola no.9, who emphatically prodded it past Martin Dubravka into the top corner. For a goal shy striker, it was a gift. Without even pausing to say thank you, Kalinic duly gobbled up the present. In the 17th minute, with some direct, incisive running Khouma Babacar got in behind the Liberec defence, the 23-year-old forward fashioned himself enough space to have done better with his resulting effort on goal. Deciding for placement over power, Babacar's shot was easily saved by Dubravka.
Any nerves that Fiorentina may have had going into this game were put to bed in the 23rd minute. The home defence once again conspired to let Kalinic slip through their net. Davide Astori played a long looping ball over the top, and with the Liberec defenders at sixes and sevens, it was left to the Viola no.9 to not only double his team's lead but also his own tally for the evening. Kalinic met the ball on the bounce taking it around the onrushing Dubravka, before coolly slipping it into the unguarded goal to make it 2-0 to Fiorentina. In many respects the two goal lead was not a reflection of Fiorentina's superiority, the side from Florence had barely broken into a sweat, both goals had come signed, sealed and delivered in the form of Liberec's rather limp attempts at defending. Nevertheless Sousa's team did not look their gift horse in the mouth. Nikola Kalinic in particular deserves praise for the aplomb with which he converted both of his goal scoring opportunities.
In the 53rd minute Sousa looked to his bench, bringing on Cristian Tello for the two-goal Kalinic. Perhaps it was pure coincidence, but by taking off one of his forwards, Sousa's rejigging proved to be a catalyst for the home team. As soon as Kalinic left the field, Liberec suddenly gained an attacking impetus. The home side started to attack with gusto and within moments of having two reasonably good efforts repelled, they got the goal that their positive thrusts had threatened. The goal came from a corner on the right, the ball whipped in, was met by the head of Ondrej Karafiat, the Liberec centre-back got good purchase on his header, glancing it goal bound. A diving Ciprian Tatarusanu stuck out a glove and with a heavy hand forced the effort away from his goal, unfortunately for the Romanian goalkeeper it fell straight to the feet of Petr Sevcik, who had the easy task of slotting it home from four yards out. If one were to be harsh, you could say that Tatarusanu's attempted save erred a bit too much towards the Hollywood school of goalkeeping, and that if the keeper had not been so intent on making the highlight reel, he could have potentially been a bit more pragmatic when trying to clear his line.
It took up until the 62nd minute for Sousa to make his second change of the evening, this time bringing on Federico Bernardeschi for Sebastien Cristoforo. Despite Sousa's tinkering it was Liberec who remained in the ascendancy, Radim Breite's forays forward resulted in two reasonable efforts on goal, followed by a David Hovorka shot that didn't trouble the target. With the confidence of the home side increasing minute by minute, things were beginning to look a little disjointed for the Viola.
Yet it was in this period, with an equaliser for the home side looking a more likely bet, that Fiorentina extended their lead. With 20 minutes of the game still remaining, the Viola's third strike effectively put the match to bed as a contest. The goal came from a classic counter attack, Borja Valero picked up the ball on the break and strode forward with a purpose that we rarely see from the shaven headed maestro. The Liberec team backtracking and out of position were carved open by two lovely Fiorentina passes. The first was from Valero who committed the defence before slipping the ball out wide to Tello. The Spanish substitute in space had enough time to pick his man out, crossing the ball with perfect precision to Khouma Babacar, who calmly tucked it past the goalkeeper into the waiting net.
On the sidelines Paulo Sousa decided enough was enough and in the 79th minute replaced Khouma Babacar with Carlos Sanchez. This left Fiorentina without a forward on the pitch for what would be the last 14 minutes of the match. It was hard not to smile at the hard nosed approach of the manager, who unless he has had his head buried in the sand for the last few weeks, surely knew such a move would invite scorn from Viola supporters. There was something disconcertingly parodic in Sousa's action, as an onlooker it felt a little awkward, of course he was letting everybody know that while he is in charge he will do things his way. Yet the way in which the svelte Viola coach took advantage of a situation in order to enact a tactical retreat, closing down the game against a team whose defence at times looked like they were on leave from the circus, invites and indeed warrants speculation.
The game fizzled out with Liberec going down to ten men, Radim Breite was issued a second yellow in the 84th minute for a late challenge on Gonzalo Rodriguez. As the final whistle blew the scoreline read 3-1 to Fiorentina. It was mission accomplished for Paulo Sousa, as the Viola collected all three points from what was at times a testy encounter. The match itself, though packed with incident, was of a poor standard and thus proved--all things considered--quite underwhelming. Interestingly, the stats sheet that was shown to TV audiences directly after the final whistle had Slovan Liberec enjoying 52% of the possession. Checking other sources post match other platforms suggest that the Czech team actually only took 46% of the ball. Regardless, as the underdog against a Sousa team that is pretty high, stark percentages considering the fact that the Viola played with four central midfielders for the majority of the game. Slovan Liberec also had 21 attempts at goal, 7 of which were on target, a defensive masterclass this was not. Despite the fact that the Viola are now sitting pretty, three points ahead of both PAOK and Qarabag at the top of Group J, there are still many credible question marks surrounding this team and its would be potential, or lack thereof.
Next up for Fiorentina will be a trip to Sardinia to face Cagliari in the league. Sousa's men will no doubt be looking to stymie Massimo Rastelli's team who themselves will be confident having in their last league outing defeated Inter Milan away at the San Siro. Kick off will be 15:00 local time.