Second bottom of the table Carpi visited the Artemio Franchi in a good run of form that had seen them win two and draw three of their last five games. The Serie A minnows arrived in Florence unbeaten in 2016. Going into this fixture, Fiorentina's own form of late had erred on the side of erratic, with the Viola having won two, lost two, and drawn one of their last five games.
Paulo Sousa rung the changes. Five players who had not made the starting eleven against Genoa on Sunday were given the nod. This move not only gave the team a different complexion but also highlighted the fact that the Viola are going through a phase of experimentation. For the first half of the season, the team more or less picked itself, with the starting eleven seeming to be carved in stone. In 2016, injuries and suspensions have disrupted the Viola's flow, forcing the head coach to grapple with decisions that up until recently had not been a problem.
Nikola Kalinic came back into the formation along with Nenad Tomovic, Mati Fernandez, Jakub Blaszczykowski, and new signing Cristian Tello, who after joining the club in January was making his debut for Fiorentina. With only two minutes on the clock Sousa's adjustments looked to be paying dividends, though in truth it was two players who had also started in Genoa who combined to put the Viola one goal up. Josip Ilicic skillfully stepped inside his man, creating enough space so that he could pick out teammate Borja Valero with pinpoint accuracy. Valero's incisive run into the Carpi penalty area was matched by the incision of Ilicic's pass. Valero took full advantage of his position, twisting the Carpi defence inside out before dispatching the ball into the back of the Carpi net. For a man who does not score many, the Spaniard made it look all too easy, provoking smiles from not just his manager on the sidelines but the entire Viola bench and backroom staff.
If scoring early (a trait of this Sousa side) was seen by anybody as an indication of the Viola's superiority in this tie, then the subsequent 43 minutes of the first half proved to be a strong testimony to the falsehood of such an assertion. Carpi slowly but surely made their way back into the game. The visitors arguably should have gone into half time level with their hosts. The team who knocked Fiorentina out of the Coppa Italia only a month ago were once again giving a credible account of themselves. Matteo Mancosu missed a great chance in the 19th minute clear on goal, he fired his shot straight at Ciprian Tatarusanu between the Viola sticks. In the 33rd minute Lorenzo Lollo was even more profligate, heading wide from point blank range after having been wonderfully set up by Jerry Mbakogu's teasing cross. Fiorentina went into half time one nil up, but only by the skin of their teeth.
As the second half got underway, the rain which had been a feature of this match from the outset continued to pelt down. While events were unfolding on the pitch, fans who had braved the torrential conditions in the hope that their team may offer some form of comfort on a cold and windy Wednesday night may have wished they had stayed at home. The game became a tetchy affair not helped by the official in charge, who seemed to take pleasure in brandishing yellow cards. Referee Angelo Cervellera cautioned eight players in total, five from Fiorentina and three from Carpi. Many of the bookings were soft, resulting from instances that did not really merit a caution. Paulo Sousa on the sidelines was visibly frustrated by some of the referee's decision making and did not hesitate to let his feelings be known. In the 66th minute of the game, the referee decided he had had enough of Sousa's protestations, sending the Portuguese manager to the stands. Sousa, for the second game in succession, saw red, the manager was left to cut an exasperated figure among the fans.
Right on cue, Sousa's exclusion was compounded by a Carpi goal. Kevin Lasagna, who had come on in the 63rd minute for Matteo Mancosu, looked to have stolen the headlines again, having made a name for himself with a goal against Roberto Mancini's Inter just a couple of matchdays ago. From a Fiorentina perspective, the goal was self-inflicted, the result of some misguided attempts at playing out from the back. Nenad Tomovic was caught in possession, a gift for the Carpi attack who gratefully accepted. The ball was passed across the box to an unmarked Lasagna who duly swept the ball into the bottom corner to make it 1-1 on the night. Sousa looked crestfallen in the stands, almost as if he had seen it coming.
Lasagna's goal had come in the 73rd minute, giving Carpi the impetus to secure at least a point from the fixture. Realising the need for some urgency and perhaps a different tact, in the 76th minute the Viola introduced Mauro Zarate, replacing Josip Ilicic. There was no immediate impact, with the Carpi defence standing resolute, withstanding any and every Viola incursion. In the 86th minute, Khouma Babacar replaced Kalinic, the Senegalese forward tasked with the impossible as Carpi's defence appeared the collective personification of a concrete wall. Once again it looked as if the 69% of possession that the Viola would end the game with would mean little as they failed to beat a team who are firmly entrenched in the relegation zone.
Thankfully for everybody, Mauro Zarate had not read the script. Two and a half minutes into the five allotted minutes given over for injury time, Zarate picked up the ball. The new man proceeded to charge forward with the ball at his feet, was pushed out wide by the defence, and found Kuba in space. The Polish international adeptly held up the ball and then gave it back to Zarate. The ex Lazio man was not by any means in a goal scoring position; the Carpi defence had closed ranks, and there did not appear to be any obvious way out for the wide man come centre forward. Moments later Zarate had proved that he can still conjure magic from his boots. Sashaying across the edge of the area, feinting and dropping his shoulder, the Argentine gracefully engineered himself the room to be able to wrap his foot around what turned out to be a howitzer of a shot, the ball moving in the air, up and down away from the Carpi goalkeeper and ending up firmly in the top corner. Naturally the stadium erupted: a game that had looked to have gotten away from Fiorentina had been changed in an instant by the wizardry of Fiorentina's new number seven.
Is there a more satisfactory ending to a game of football than to seal the winner deep into injury time? On what had been a windswept and rain drenched evening, fans had up until that moment witnessed a game that had reflected the dreary conditions that the match had been played out in. Then in a moment, agony turned to ecstasy, grumblings turned to exaltations, the match turned on its head and a new hero was christened by the curva. Whatever happens in Mauro Zarate's Viola career, he will be hard pressed to serve up a moment as emotionally charged as the goal he produced in this game.
The goal itself will hopefully serve as a positive catalyst for the club. The Viola's overall performance was listless. However, sometimes a goal has the power to provoke a change; how different would the atmosphere surrounding the club be if Zarate had not scored? This goal was vital to the cause, as it meant Fiorentina won the game 2-1, importantly collecting three points to keep pace with Inter Milan, who also won on the night. Fiorentina maintain in third position as the fight for third spot begins to take shape. Roma, Fiorentina, and Inter look like the main protagonists in a three way brawl for Champions League football next year. Hopefully with the help of Zarate, Tello and co, the Viola will be able to continue that fight right up until the end of the season.