Without Gonzalo Rodriguez or Borja Valero, Paulo Sousa opted for the energy of Sebastian Cristoforo in the middle of the park and Nenad Tomovic, rather than Sebastian de Maio, in the heart of the defense. Both would prove to have some serious bearing on the final outcome.
After referee Paolo Tagliavento handed out a pair of absurd yellow cards in the opening minutes, the players were allowed to begin the match. Lorenzo Insigne tried a long shot in minute 7 that Ciprian Tatarusanu easily handled. On the other end, Nikola Kalinic was flagged offside (but just barely) as he ran down a lofted through ball from Milan Badelj that would have put him 1-on-1 with Pepe Reina. After another few attempts to play in over the top from the Viola, Napoli played an intricate passing combination down the length of the pitch that ended with Jose Callejon firing just wide at 20’.
At 24’, though, Napoli got on the scoresheet. Insigne picked up a pass in a slightly offside position on the left, then cut inside and curled a really splendid shot into the top corner from way outside, giving Napoli the lead. Fiorentina didn’t really respond, and 10 minutes later, Dries Mertens turned the ball into the net, although this time the linesman’s flag correctly went up, as the Belgian was way offside. 5 minutes later, Federico Bernardeschi won the ball in the attacking third, then fed Federico Chiesa. The teenager slipped the ball into Nikola Kalinic; the Croatian’s left-footed shot from a tough angle was off target, wasting the best chance the Viola had in the half.
Or so we thought, because it got weird in stoppage time. Kalinic snuck in behind the defense to gather a long pass from Matias Vecino, but took a blatant dive as Reina rushed out to meet him. Reina began yelling furiously and went into the book; it looked like a penalty had been awarded, but it turned out that the goalkeeper had been booked for dissent after insisting that Kalinic’s dive should have been a second yellow and a sending off. Perhaps Nikola’s admission that he went down without contact saved him, but it was a bad and stupid decision on his part. The half ended without further incident.
Chiesa ran out brilliantly just after kickoff, absolutely skinning rightback Faouzi Ghoulam, then centerback Nikola Maksimovic, before firing a low, hard shot from a tight angle straight at Reina. This clearly signaled his side’s intent, as Fiorentina dominated the opening minutes of the second period. At 50’, Maksimovic was booked for a professional foul on Kalinc about 27 yards from goal. Bernardeschi stepped up and struck the free kick, which took a wild deflection off of Callejon in the wall and redirected itself into the bottom corner of the goal as Reina, completely wrong-footed, watched helplessly.
Now imbued with confidence, the Viola were clearly dominating. Berna hit a lovely diagonal ball over the top for Chiesa, who beat Ghoulam again but couldn’t put his shot on frame—he may have been better served by crossing. The next big chance also came from Chiesa, as he beat his man in the 65th minute and played in a low cross that flashed across the face of goal, begging for a finish. When Maxi Olivera brilliantly cleared a Mertens free kick off the line, it seemed like a Viola kind of day; with Fiorentina in full throat, it was sickening to see Tomovic dither on the ball at the edge of the box, allowing Mertens to nick it from him and then finish past Tatarusanu in the 68th minute, putting the visitors back on top.
Berna, though, was having none of that. 2 minutes after Tomovic’s disaster, the Italian international blasted a daisy-cutter from nearly 30 yards out that took a low hop and nestled inside Reina’s post, pulling the Viola equal for the second time on the evening in the 70th minute and returning the feeling of hope in the hosts’ hearts. 3 minutes later, Sousa brought on Mauro Zarate and Carlos Sanchez for Sebastian Cristoforo and Milan Badelj, indicating that he was really going to go for it.
And in the 82nd minute, that move paid off. Bernardeschi played a laser-guided cross to Zarate, who’d snuck into the box in between the centerbacks. The Argentine didn’t waste time trying to bring the pass down, but instead stuck out his right foot and redirected the cross into the bottom corner of the goal, leaving Reina rooted to the spot. It was a spectacular goal, and completed a deeply unlikely late comeback. Maurizio Sarri responded immediately subbing in attacker Manolo Gabbiadini for midfielder Amidou Diawara, and Sousa, in turn, brought on Kevin Diks for Chiesa a couple minutes later.
The drama wasn’t done, though: deep into stoppage time, Dries Mertens saw Carlos Salcedo begin reaching his leg out for a tackle. The diminutive Belgian immediately reversed course and ran into the defender’s leg, winning a penalty that could easily have been avoided. Gabbiadini stepped up to take it; given his miserable form this season, it wasn’t entirely outside the question to expect a miss. Indeed, Tatarusanu nearly palmed it away, but the shot went in, and Tagliavento blew the match dead at 3-3.
The combination of Bernardeschi and Chiesa up top is truly dazzling; the former drifts infield and takes the game by the scruff of the neck, while the latter stays wide, beats his man, and puts the ball in. The midfield, too, performed quite well, mostly stymieing a talented Partenopei setup and shielding the defense better than the scoreline indicates. But individual errors at the back proved too much for the Viola to overcome, making the absence of Gonzalo Rodriguez even more painful.
Whatever you want to say about him generally, Paulo Sousa did an excellent job in this match. Chiesa was brilliant the whole match, and is clearly repaying the mister’s trust. Cristoforo added non-stop running to help neutralize the midfield in a way that Josip Ilicic never will, and Zarate and Sanchez were both perfect off the bench. After this performance, it’s hard to see Corvino and the Della Valles giving Sousa the sack over the break.
Tatarusanu: 6—Made a couple of decent stops and wasn’t at fault for any of the goals. Avoided any major errors, too, which was a nice departure from recent weeks.
Salcedo: 4.5—Ought to know better than to leave a leg hanging for Mertens to run into, especially in the area. Mostly coped well with Insigne, though, and showcased some good long passing, although he lost focus and gave away some shorter ones.
Tomovic: 2.5—Oh my goodness. The giveaway for the Mertens goal will stand out, but he had a couple other ones that were really bad, too. After consecutive terrible performances, surely Sebastian de Maio has moved past him in the pecking order.
Astori: 6—Wasn’t bad, per se, but wasn’t nearly as good as we’ve come to expect. Clearly more comfortable sweeping up behind a more aggressive defender like Gonzalo. Also may be tired from playing 90 minutes twice a week for the past month.
Olivera: 7.5—Shut down Jose Callejon for 90 minutes and made the left wing his with grit and intelligence. Occasionally ventured forward and swung in a couple of nice crosses. Starting to settle in, and looks like a solid role-player for years to come.
Vecino: 6.5—Took a more proactive passing role in Borja’s absence, but couldn’t quite make it happen. Did play a couple of nice long passes over the top for Kalinic. Obviously not a creator, although he’s doing his best.
Badelj: 6—Not nearly as effective defensively as usual; missed a bunch of tackles. Played a few nice diagonal passes, but never seemed to dig in as he usually does.
Cristoforo: 6.5—Badly miscast as a number 10 as he struggled to get involved. Did get the assist on Bena’s thunderbastard, and helped set the tone with his non-stop running and pressing high up the pitch. Would love to see him breaking forward from a deeper role.
Chiesa: 7—Really starting to find his feet. Showcased an ability to regularly beat one of the better fullbacks in Serie A; now just needs to sort out his end product. Once he figures out when to pass and when to shoot, though, he’s going to be a terror.
Bernardeschi: 9—Becoming a world-class player before our eyes. Played a bit more within himself today, which helped. The passing, the shooting, the close control, and the appreciation for space were all on full display. Imperious.
Kalinic: 5.5—The dive was indefensible, and he wasn’t too involved otherwise. Did make a couple of decent runs which Chiesa ignored, but never seemed able to beat the centerbacks.
Zarate: 7.5—Scored a magnificent goal, and otherwise buzzed around, worrying the defense with his movement and dribbling. He’s made for matches like this, where his team needs a goal late in the game.
Sanchez: 6.5—Came in and immediately dominated the center of the park with his physicality. Helped settle things with his simple passing and shielded the defense nicely. Vintage stuff from la Roca.
Diks: n/a—Didn’t have enough time on the pitch to make an impression. Hopefully, though, that’ll change following Tomovic’s horror show.