With a 35 point chasm between them and their hosts, Hellas Verona arrived in Florence rooted to the bottom of the Serie A table. Having only amassed 18 points this term and having yet to register an away victory all season, it is little wonder that the bookmakers made Paolo Sousa's men odds on favourites in this contest. Crucially Fiorentina were without the services of central midfield duo Milan Badelj (suspended) and Matias Vecino (injured). The pairing's enforced absence had perhaps been the catalyst for Paolo Sousa to bring about wholesale change to his side.
The most glaring omission from the Viola's starting eleven was captain Gonzalo Rodriguez. The manager took this game as an opportunity to rest his ever present star defender. A decision that with hindsight the Portuguese coach may well have wished to reverse. Additionally Federico Bernardeschi, Nikola Kalinic, Josip Ilicic and Facundo Roncaglia were among a host of players who could have been forgiven for imagining that they may well have started this match. Instead all were gifted a view from the bench. With Manuel Pasqual, Nenad Tomovic, Matias Fernandez, Khouma Babacar and the returning (from suspension) Mauro Zarate all given surprise starts in a curious 4-5-1 formation that was set-up with Marcos Alonso starting as a centre back.
Hellas Verona are the eighteenth pit stop for manager Luigi Delneri in a coaching career that dates back to 1985. Given their abject position and general air of hopelessness, Delneri's decision in December to take over at an ailing Verona may have surprised some. However since taking charge the veteran has in 14 league games at the helm brought a little bit of pride and a modicum of self-respect back to the famous Gialloblu. Despite dwelling in the basement Delneri's charges have achieved credible results, drawing with among others Inter, Roma and AC Milan as well as winning the derby against city rivals Chievo.
With this fixture taking place at the Artemio Franchi, it was fitting that Delneri gave starts to Viola loanee Ante Rebic as well as ex Viola legend Luca Toni, the Azzurri World Cup winner spearheading the Hellas attack. Whilst Verona were packing more ex Viola magic on their bench in the shape of Giampaolo Pazzini (Pazzini would come on as a substitute in the 72nd minute for Delneri's team).
Within three minutes of referee Claudio Gavillucci's first whistle, in a heavy coming together Nenad Tomovic went down and stayed down. The Serbian defender was stretchered off the pitch and eventually replaced by Facundo Roncaglia. Tomovic's injury was the only talking point from an opening 15 minutes that was to act as a desultory precursor for the rest of the match. Between the 15th and 18th minute Khouma Babacar had two sights of goal. In the first instance the Senegalese forward's indecision lost him the opportunity of getting a clear shot off, whereas in the second, the Viola no.30 managed to register an effort, though it did not trouble Pierluigi Gollini in the Verona goal, the ball flashing wide of its target.
As the first half wore on it was hard to decipher a pattern to the game, with both teams making forays into their opponent's half without either side producing anything that could be viewed as remotely dangerous. To give the away side credit, on several occasions their incursions into Viola territory gave Fiorentina food for thought. Delneri's men were out to prove that they had not come to Florence just to make up the numbers. Fiorentina were finding it hard to gel as a unit. Sousa's attempts to integrate a new system with new faces had resulted in the team appearing stilted with a distinct lack of creativity. Though the home side once again enjoyed the lions share of possession (ending the game with 64%) it was noticeable that the team in purple did not seem as comfortable with the ball at their feet as they have done on previous outings this season.
The Viola's passing game seemed to lack its usual zip and incision and as a result the game became compressed, the teams attacking play was slow and predictable. One bright spark for Fiorentina was Mauro Zarate. With his direct dribbling style the Argentine forward was able to offer an alternative to the slow build up play that had made the game into such a turgid affair. It would be Zarate who would get the breakthrough for the Viola, finishing off (albeit with a heavy deflection) a nice move that culminated with Cristian Tello pulling the ball back for Zarate to open the scoring. The goal came in the 40th minute, perfect timing for the home side who would see out the remainder of the half to go in with a one nil lead. Zarate's strike was Fiorentina's 50th league goal of the season.
The second half started with Fiorentina flat footed, taken aback by Verona's pressing, a poor giveaway left Davide Astori with no choice but to take the expedient option of taking out Leandro Greco, in the process conceding a free kick on the edge of the Viola area and gaining a caution for his troubles. Luca Marrone's effort from the resulting free kick was hastily pushed around his post by a watchful Ciprian Tatarusanu. Hellas with the wind in their sails continued to pour forward, in the 54th minute Artur Ionita fashioned himself space only to see his shot go right down the throat of a grateful Tatarusanu. The warning signs were there for Paolo Sousa's men, a second goal looked to be a must have, in a game that was too open for the home side to be comfortable.
The second half was less constricted than the first with the game finally stretching out and revealing pockets of space to be exploited. This was a marked difference from the first half but was not taken advantage of by the home side who were uncharacteristically sloppy. Tino Costa in particular looked like a fish out of water, the defensive midfielder was at sixes and sevens in what was an errant performance from the ex Genoa man. In the 56th minute his disarray prompted Paolo Sousa to draft in Federico Bernardeschi, the young Italian replacing the out of sorts Argentine.
In the 57th minute Zarate shot from distance but it did not trouble the Verona keeper. In between such irregular and anomalous sights as Borja Valero needlessly losing possession in the midfield, it was clear that on the pitch something was not quite right for the Viola. In the 70th minute Zarate played through Babacar but the latter's shot was weak and straight at Gollini who gathered comfortably. In the 75th minute Babacar was dragged off, replaced by Nikola Kalinic.
Fiorentina had been ineffective from kick-off and only had themselves to blame that they dropped points here. The equalising goal for Verona seemed strangely inevitable. It felt oddly as if there was some conspiring force at play. The home side's inability to impose themselves was if not predictable, then eerily familiar to the Viola fans looking on. In the 77th minute Luca Toni had a glorious chance to level for the visitors, the ball hanging in the air for what felt like an age before dropping for the ex Viola man to connect on the volley. The strike was straight at Tatarusanu, it was a forewarning of what was to come.
That the team did not take heed of such a warning is somewhat baffling. With ten minutes to go, the game was poised, this was a critical juncture, one at which Fiorentina should have made the most of their ability to retain possession. With three points up for grabs some utilitarianism would not have been frowned upon. Instead the team persisted in haplessly giving up the ball to their opponents. The team's lackadaisical display would prove pivotal in the outcome of the game. In the 86th minute Verona won a corner, the ball was lofted in and the Viola defence were all caught ball watching, leaving the magnificently named Eros Pisano to guide his header into the Viola net levelling the scores at 1-1. Objectively Fiorentina had received their just deserts, both for underestimating Verona and for going AWOL in a fixture that was a must win game for Paolo Sousa's men.
In the 89th minute Hellas almost won the game outright when Luca Siligardi twisted inside and out before curling his shot a whisker wide of Tatarusanu's far post. Before the game ended Kalinic also had an opportunity to snatch the points, the Croatian forward blasting a half volley goal bound, only to see Gollini pull off a wonderful save to deny what would have been a get out of jail free card for Paolo Sousa. As it was the game ended 1-1.
The critical focus will now shift to Paolo Sousa's team selection, question marks arise as to why the coach left key players out of a game that the team really needed to win. Fiorentina now occupy joint fourth spot in the league with Inter Milan. Both clubs are five points behind third placed Roma and six points ahead of sixth placed AC Milan.
Is the dream of Champions League football for next season now over? It is perhaps a premature question, there is still a lot of football to be played, that said the result of this match is a serious blow in the Viola's race to qualify for European football's biggest bonanza.