Paulo Sousa trotted out the now-familiar 4-2-3-1, featuring Nenad Tomovic and Hrvoje Milic at the fullback spots Borja Valero and Milan Badelj in the midfield. This was also the first match in which former Fiorentina captain Manuel Pasqual faced his old club, which was just really weird.
The Viola started with intensity, which is always a concern after the international break. The first big chance fell to ageless wonder Massimo Maccarone, though, who lashed a shot straight at Ciprian Tatarusanu in the 11th minute. He nearly slithered through again a few minutes later, but was denied by the linesman’s flag, although it was certainly a close call. On the other end, Cristian Tello burned past Pasqual and lasered a shot at the top corner of the near post which Lukazs Skorupski did well to parry. There weren’t many shots, though, as both sides struggled to get going in attack.
The breakthrough came in the 26th minute, though. Nikola Kalinic brought down a lovely cross from Borja Valero on the back post, then took a touch past a charging Skorupski, who brought him down. Referee Davide Mass played the advantage, though, and Federico Bernardeschi was quickest to the loose ball, slotting home from inside the box for his 5th of the season.
The Viola scented blood and immediately pressed for another; Skorupski made an excellent pair of saves on a brilliant Valero shot and on Berna’s follow-up. Empoli weathered the storm, though, and fought back. Maccarone got in behind the defense at the 36’ mark and went down just outside the box under pressure from Nenad Tomovic. Massa awarded a free kick, rather than the penalty and/or red card the Azzuri were hoping for. After a bit of back and forth, things settled down enough for Big Mac to hammer the free kick into the wall. Sousa and his men trooped into the tunnel after rather digging in for the remainder of the half, leaving the distinct impression that a single goal wouldn’t be enough to win this one.
The Viola pressed forward from the second half kickoff, and their industry paid immediate dividends. Just 2 minutes after the restart, Milan Badelj picked up the ball on the right wing. His cross deflected right back to him, and he darted into the box, cutting back just as Assane Diousse stuck a leg. There were no protests as Massa awarded the penalty, and Josip Ilicic easily converted it to double the visitors’ lead and give everyone a feeling of much greater calm.
Although Maccarone forced another strong save out of Tata in the 50th minute, the Viola were starting to seize the match by the scruff of the neck with a series of lethal-looking counter attacks. First, Badelj, Valero, and Ilicic combined to set Berna free, but his pass into Nikola Kalinic was weak and the Croatian never got the body shape he needed to finish it. Moments later, Tello broke down the right side and simply outran everyone down the length of the pitch before Skorupski denied him in a one-on-one.
Minutes after that, Berna picked the ball up from Milic about 40 yards from goal, then powered past 2 defenders, took another touch past a third one to set the ball on his left foot, and fired a rocket into the top near corner of the goal that left Skorupski utterly helpless. Ilicic, obviously wanting to keep pace on the scorer’s sheet, added a spectacular golazo not 5 minutes later. Valero threaded it through to him on the edge of the box, and Lurch cut the ball back onto his weaker right foot before smashing a shot that struck the bottom of the crossbar before bouncing down and in. Fiorentina were officially running riot.
Kalinic should have added another in the 69th after Berna set him up in the box for a one-on-one with the keeper, but the Croatian seemed to hesitate, and Skorupski did very well to recover and block his shot. Matias Vecino, who’d come on for Ilicic, showed a surprising burst a few minutes later to drive into the box and shoot, but Skorupski was equal to the challenge. The Viola knocked the ball around for the remainder of the match and even generated some nice half-chances, but with 4 goals away from home, they clearly took their foot off the gas and rode it out for a brilliant win.
The win catapults Fiorentina into 8th place with a game in hand, which means they could pass Torino with a win in the replay. The clean sheet also means they have the second-best defensive record in Serie A, with just 11 goals conceded in 12 matches. Unfortunately, though, Sousa will have to work some magic for the match against Inter Milan next week, as Tello will be suspended for yellow card accumulation. All in all, though, this was one of the better Viola performances of the season, especially in the second half.
Tatarusanu: 8—Made several very good saves on Massimo Maccarone. After a rather uninspiring couple of months, Tata reminded us that he’s still a pretty dang good keeper.
Tomovic: 5.5—Had a couple of bad giveaways, as we’ve come to expect, and was lucky not to have been sent off in the first half.
Gonzalo: 7—Reliable as ever. Did a good job of directing the defense, especially in the second half.
Astori: 7.5—Made some really crucial interventions and helped settle things down in possession, too. Has grown into one of the best defenders in Italy right now.
Milic: 5—Mostly adequate in defense, but a danger to his own team every time he touches the ball. A series of bad giveaways in deep positions had Sousa barking at him, and may well have put Maxi Olivera in the first XI.
Valero: 7.5—Besides the assist, produced a highlight reel bit of skill to set up a shot that very easily could have gone in. Looked much more energetic than he has in weeks, buzzing around the pitch and moving the ball quickly.
Badelj: 8—One of his finest matches in purple. Continually won the ball in the middle with interceptions and flawless tackles, and was more ambitious with the ball than usual. The penalty he won was just icing on the cake.
Tello: 7—Gave poor old Pasqual fits with his pace for 90 minutes. Should have scored, but at least looked synced up with his teammates for the first time in awhile.
Ilicic: 8—Did his usual lurk-around-the-box-and-shoot-whenever-possible routine, but mostly kept them on goal and even helped spark a couple of counters. Coolly-taken penalty was nice, but Josip-smash was nicer.
Bernardeschi: 9.5—Cannot recall ever seeing him look better. Brilliantly varied his position and always seemed to pop up in space to shoot for himself or set up a teammate. He’s really doing it.
Kalinic: 7—Had a couple of good chances, but couldn’t beat (the admittedly excellent) Skorupski. His movement made some space for the attackers behind him to cook, though, and his link-up play was useful on the break.
Salcedo: 6.5—Typically robust match from el Titan. Still acclimating to Serie A, but looks like a really solid player.
Vecino: 6.5—Definitely has some spring in his step. Really drove forward with the ball more than usual, which could be an exciting new facet to his game.
Cristoforo: 6—Match was well over by the time he arrived, and he mostly kept the ball quietly and tried to preserve the big lead.