This sure looked like a walk in the park for Fiorentina. Palermo, after all, was on their third manager of the season in Eugenio Corini, who hadn’t been in charge of a team since 2014, and inherited a last-placed club that’s largely devoid of top-level talent and had just lost to Serie B club Spezia in the Coppa Italia.
Paulo Sousa certainly seemed confident, as he named an extraordinarily attacking side in a surprise return to the 3-4-1-2 formation. With Federico Bernardeschi, Cristian Tello, Borja Valero, Josip Ilicic, Khouma Babacar, and Nikola Kalinic all in the lineup, it was reasonable to assume that the Portuguese mister wanted his side to put their foot on the gas from the get-go and never let up.
Things nearly began really badly, though, as Nenad Tomovic (deputizing for an unjustly suspended Gonzalo Rodriguez in the heart of the defense) brought down Robin Quaison in the area in the 5th minute. While it certainly looked a penalty, referee Piero Giacomelli waved play on, giving the Gigliati a lucky escape. Fiorentina responded at the 11 minute mark, as Matias Vecino picked up a ball on the left wing after a corner and swung a cross into the back post. Kalinic dove to head it home, but the linesman raised his flag for offside, which replays showed was the wrong call. With both sides now robbed of goal-scoring opportunities, it really felt like a Serie A game already.
The Viola had the bit between their teeth, though, and really pressed forward. Vecino fired a rocket just over the bar at 18’, and Ilicic slipped Kalinic in a couple minutes later, only to see the Croatian’s tame shot saved by the outstanding Josip Posevac. The Rosaneri woke up, though, and Quaison headed a cross over while unmarked before he and Oscar Hiljemark both had shots inside the area blocked within seconds of each other.
The Viola regained momentum, though, through Berna, who left Michele Morganella for dead on the left flank and got to the byline before cutting it back for Kalinic, who swept a wide-open chance over the crossbar from just 8 yards out. But at the half hour mark, Fiorentina got their chance. Haitam Aleesami blocked a Tello shot with his arm inside the area, and Berna coolly sent Posevac the wrong way to notch his 7th goal of the season. Perhaps Ilicic didn’t want to score against his old team, as penalties are usually his thing, but a lead felt pretty good.
Just a few minutes later, though, it looked like Babacar had doubled the lead. Posevac bobbled a shot, and B2 pounced, prodding it into the net. However, Giacomelli inexplicably waved this one off too, wrongly insisting that the Senegalese forward had fouled the keeper. Things cooled off a bit after that, although Posevac did manage another stunning save on a Vecino header to keep the lead at 1-0, and Tomovic did a good Gonzalo impression to prevent Ilija Nestorovski from getting on a cross just before the break.
The half had barely started when Tomovic again fouled Quaison, although this time it was about 24 yards from goal. Mato Jajalo curled a peach of a free kick around the Viola wall to equalize. Ciprian Tatarusanu was perhaps a step slow reaching it, but there’s probably not much he could have done. Just like that, the basement-dwelling visitors had tied it up.
Sousa responded by having Tello and Berna switch wings, forcing both to cut onto their stronger feet. The result was an extremely narrow Viola attack which mostly fizzled out as it approached the Palermo box. Ilicic badly missed after a trademark cut inside from the right, and Nestorovski had a chance in the area but was body-checked off the ball by his own teammate, but most of the second period was pretty flat.
Despite bringing on Mauro Zarate for his first action in months, Fiorentina looked more desperate than dangerous. In the 88th minute, they got their best chance to retake the lead as Ilicic spun a perfect free kick over the top to an onrushing Enrico Chiesa, but Posevac made another superhuman save to deny the teenager. The 4 minutes of stoppage time looked like they just might be the last 4 minutes of Sousa’s tenure.
Then, after 2 of those stoppage minutes had passed, Zarate took a short corner from the left, turned, and curled a long cross towards the back post with his right foot. Khouma Babacar somehow bulldozed his way through a crowd of purple and white shirts to head it towards the back post, leaving Posevac helpless to deny him. The Franchi went crazy, and Giacomelli whistled the match dead soon after.
I imagine that things in the dressing room were a bit awkward for Sousa, as the striker he’s clearly been trying to offload saved his bacon in the most dramatic way possible. However, there are plenty of other things to take away from this one, too.
The most obvious is that the 3-4-1-2 just doesn’t suit this team, as it leaves the wide players too deep to attack. You have to admire Sousa’s confidence that his squad could defend adequately with just 3 centerbacks and a box-to-box midfielder as everyone else attacked, but it’s clear that this team needs a bit more control in the middle, especially when Borja’s not at his best. Also, this team seems incapable of playing with 2 strikers and a 3-man defense, despite Sousa’s obvious desire to make it work.
Tatarusanu: 6—Didn’t really have much to do, and couldn’t have done anything on the goal.
Salcedo: 6—Avoided a booking for the first time in a month and a half, which was nice, but his distribution was iffy and he looked a bit lost in the box. May be hitting a wall in his first season away from Mexico, but should bust through it soon.
Tomovic: 5.5—Should have been sent off early, and looked shaky all day. He did have a couple of nice plays, but seemed rattled for most of the match. In fairness, he hasn’t played much in the middle of a back 3 recently.
Astori: 7.5—Was his usual solid self at the back, but his passing was excellent, and he showed a willingness to motor into the midfield occasionally. May well be the club’s best player of the first half of the season.
Tello: 5—Won the penalty with a shot that looked like it was going harmlessly high and wide, and otherwise was uninvolved and uninspiring. He’s got oodles of talent, but can’t seem to control when it emerges.
Vecino: 7—Should have had an assist and was centimeters from scoring twice. Battled well in midfield and also blazed forward fearlessly in attack. Made one or two mistakes, but was mostly a very positive influence.
Valero: 6.5—Seemed out of sorts all match. Maybe it was the captain’s armband, maybe it was having him and Vecino both looking to push forward, maybe it was having Ilicic and the wingbacks occupying his preferred spaces. May just need a rest.
Bernardeschi: 7.5—Took the penalty brilliantly, but also provided some dynamism otherwise lacking from the team. His ability to beat his man off the dribble and his directness were big in the first half, but he faded when switched to the right wing.
Ilicic: 5—Played a couple of decent balls in, but more frequently lost the ball while dithering in the midfield or near the box, and none of his shots ever looked like going in. We’ll chalk this one up to playing against his old employers and not think about it too much.
Kalinic: 6—Should have gotten a goal but was wrongly flagged offside. Maybe that shattered his confidence, because he was invisible after that, other than a now-too-common terrible miss.
Babacar: 8—Gave the defense fits with his physicality and pace all day and should have scored twice. Never seems quite sure how to play with another striker, but at least deserves a chance to get some minutes to himself up top.
Badelj: 5.5—Helped settle the midfield, but didn’t offer much going forward and got himself booked.
Zarate: 6.5—Exactly what we expected from him. Selfish, direct, unafraid to dribble and shoot, and got the game-winning assist.
Chiesa: n/a—Nearly scored, but wasn’t on long enough to really get a feeling for him in this one.