Paulo Sousa named more or less the squad we expected, with the lone surprise being box-to-box midfielder Sebastian Cristoforo deployed in an unfamiliar number 10 role. Khouma Babacar, Federico Chiesa, and Maxi Olivera all started as well. The other surprise was that the pitch was nearly frozen solid; turns out that Baku is a cold place in December, particularly with the wind whipping in off the Caspian Sea. The Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, while absolutely stunning, provided a chilly welcome indeed for the visitors.
The opening period was, frankly, a bit of a wet squib. The icy conditions certainly didn’t help things, but both Sousa and Qarabag boss Gurban Gurbanov were very cautious throughout the first 45 minutes; a draw would have suited the Viola just fine, and the hosts were clearly more comfortable in a stop-start affair rather than bombing forward and trying to score. The match devolved into a real midfield scuffle with little invention from either side.
There were two moments of note, though. The first was at 31’, when Qarabag striker Dino Ndlovu snuck in behind Davide Astori and latched onto a ball over the top, then turned Gonzalo Rodriguez in the box and fired a shot that Ciprian Tatarusanu just barely touched and turned onto the post.
Just 5 minutes later, Olivera burst down the left, beat his man to the touchline, and cut inside. After a defender poked the ball loose, he neatly recovered and squared for Federico Bernardeschi, who turned and fired a sweetly-struck shot on the half-volley. Alas, this one caromed off the left post, letting the Azerbaijanis off the hook.
Sousa gave an ineffective Babacar the hook just 5 minutes into the second period, bringing on Nikola Kalinic in his stead. The move paid off within 10 minutes, as the Croatian striker laid a ball off to Matias Vecino on the break at the hour mark. The Uruguayan took a touch, settled himself about 22 yards from goal, and uncorked a low, hard shot. The ball may have skipped strangely on the grass, because goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic should have done much better but instead let it squire right by him for the opener.
Sousa made his second change immediately, bringing on Borja Valero for Cristoforo, who never looked comfortable as the playmaker. However, it was the hosts who struck next, at minute 73: after a tussle in midfield that looked to have ended with a foul, the Viola stopped playing. The referee hadn’t blown his whistle, though, and Dani Quintana threaded a ball through for substitute Reynaldo, who raced through the defense and slotted home the equalizer.
The drama wasn’t even close to finished, though. Three minutes after scoring, Qarabag were unable to clear a corner and Borja whipped in a cross from the right that dropped for Kalinic. Sehic partially blocked the striker’s point-blank shot, but the ball deflected kindly and hung up right in front of Chiesa, who nodded into an open goal to retake the lead and score his first-ever goal for Fiorentina.
Chiesa wasn’t done with first-time achievements, though. After losing out on a loose ball in the midfield, the young winger reached out and corralled his man by the shoulders, blatantly pulling him down from behind. The referee had no choice but to show him a second yellow card and send him trudging off in the 84th minute. However, Fiorentina never really looked like conceding another, and left the pitch as the clearly superior team.
The first half was barely watchable, and a lot of that falls on Sousa. He stationed 3 combative central midfielders in the middle, and none of them were quick enough on the ball to really create anything. Cristoforo dropped too deep and frequently left Babacar completely isolated up top. The Viola were much better once Borja came on to ping the ball into the attack. On the other hand, the defense was mostly alright (aside from a few panicked moments), which would have been Sousa’s primary goal, as a draw would have put his club out of reach at the top of the group.
As it stands, though, the top of the group is where the Viola finish, which means they’ll avoid the teams dropping into the round of 32 from the Champions League. Instead, they’ll face one of Manchester United, Olympiacos, Anderlecht, AZ Alkmaar, Astra Giurgiu, Genk, Celta Vigo, Gent, Krasnodar, Hapoel Be’er Sheva, or Villarreal. The draw will be held on Monday.
Tatarusanu: 6.5—Mostly had little to do, but made a couple of nice saves. Couldn’t have done anything about the goal.
Tomovic: 6.5—Was reasonably solid throughout. Didn’t do anything great, but also didn’t mess anything up. With Nenad, that’s definitely a win.
Gonzalo: 6.5—Got turned inside-out on Ndlovu’s goal, and had a couple of nervy moments at the back. Maybe it was just the rust after missing the Palermo match.
Astori: 6.5—Let Ndlovu in behind him a few times, including for the goal. Was otherwise quite solid, though.
Olivera: 7—Probably didn’t do enough to unseat Hrvoje Milic as first choice, but showed some glimpses of superiority. Should have had an assist to Berna, but the shot went off the upright.
Badelj: 7—Spent all 90 minutes making short passes, winning the ball in midfield, and putting himself in the right spot every time. You know, typical Badelj stuff.
Vecino: 8—The goal honestly shouldn’t have gone in, but it still counts. The rest of his game was tidy as well, and he drove forward quite nicely a few times.
Chiesa: 7—Got sent off for something very, very dumb, but also scored the winner and generally seemed willing to make something happen.
Cristoforo: 5—Often switched spots with Berna, but was invisible in both. Clearly better suited to playing as a deeper midfielder rather than as an attacker.
Bernardeschi: 6.5—Provided the only real attack in the first half, and looked sporadically promising. The pitch probably kept him from playing as well as he’d have liked.
Babacar: 4.5—Completely invisible and didn’t seem interested, honestly. Received very little service and spent much of the match isolated up top, but it’s still a let-down after his breakthrough against Palermo.
Kalinic: 6—Notched an assist and set up the winner with a shot that was saved, but also gave the ball away with a terrible backpass in the midfield to set up Qarabag’s goal.
Valero: 6.5—Everything seemed to move a lot better when he arrived. Was clearly the best passer on the pitch, and kept the ball moving forward.
Sanchez: n/a—Got stuck in, but didn’t have enough time to make much of an impression.