Fiorentina came out looking as if they expected the Azerbaijanis to roll over for them. Qarabag swiftly disabused them of this notion, pressing forward and closing down relentlessly and forcing Ciprian Tatarusanu into a couple of early saves. The Viola misplaced simple passes and generally looked uninterested for the first 15 minutes or so, but then finally realized they were playing and began to press forward. Khouma Babacar missed a good chance in the 24th minute as he met a Maxi Olivera cross at the back post but was unable to turn it home.
At the half hour mark, though, everything changed: Qarabag centerback Elvin Yunuszada blatantly knocked down the ball with his hand to prevent Nikola Kalinic getting through on goal, and was rightfully red carded. Federico Bernardeschi curled a free kick on target, but Qarabag keeper Ibrahim Sehic saved it. The floodgates were opened, however, and it didn’t take the Viola long to capitalize. Nikola Kalinic stepped up to a freekick just outside the ball and smashed it at Sehic as hard as he could. The keeper could only parry, and Babacar acrobatically turned the rebound home.
Although the half was winding down, Fiorentina was just warming up and produced one of the slickest goals you’re going to see this year. Cristian Tello neatly slipped in Sebastian Cristoforo, who made a clever run in behind the defense and then instinctively backheeled the ball away from the onrushing Sehic and into the path of Kalinic, who easily tucked it away for a second. Then, in stoppage time, Kalinic latched onto a long pass down the wing from Nenad Tomovic and absolutely bamboozled Qarabag leftback Ansi Agolli before sending in a low cross to Babacar, who sidefooted home from five yards out. The whistle sounded shortly after, and the Viola went into the dressing room with 3 goals in just 8 minutes.
With the match well in hand, Paulo Sousa subbed Matias Vecino on for Carlos Sanchez; giving the Uruguayan 45 low pressure minutes as he works back from injury and saving his midfield destroyer must have pleased the Portuguese mister. The Uruguayan nearly paid immediate dividends, forcing a sharp save from Sehic with a header in the 58th minute and striking the bar and also striking the crossbar in a scramble. Kalinic remained involved as well and would have doubled his tally if not for a smart save from Sehic.
Sousa brought on Mauro Zarate and Federico Chiesa for Bernardeschi and Kalinic in the 61st minute, and the Argentinean didn’t take long to show that he’s still got some fantasia in him; Vecino tackled Michel on the edge of the box in the 63rd minute, and the ball squirted out to Maurito, who turned past a couple defenders and rifled home a splendid strike from outside the box before pulling his jersey off to reveal an undershirt stamped with the message “Gracias Dios. Nat te amo (Thank God. Nat I love you)” in reference to his wife Natalie Weber, who’s recovering from cancer.
The “former West Ham man” wasn’t done, though, as he beat Maksim Medvedev in the 77th, forcing the defender to foul him about 20 yards from goal. The Zarate kid took the ensuing free kick himself and made no mistake, curling it over the wall and just inside the goal post for his second. Chiesa also nearly scored in the 75th, controlling a long pass and cutting inside to shoot, but a last ditch block sent his shot over the bar. Sebastian de Maio nearly opened his Viola account with a header from a corner, but Sehic parried it over, while the Zarate Kid could have gotten his hat trick, but fired another free kick into the wall. It was Qarabag who had the last laugh, though, as substitute Dino Ndlovu picked up possession on the left side of the Viola box and curled a very nice shot around Tata and in, but no one in purple seemed to mind.
Okay, first things first. This is the 3rd-place team in Azerbaijan. The match was at the Franchi. Qarabag had a man sent off just half an hour in. But holy smokes, this was the Fiorentina we’ve been waiting for. Babacar and Kalinic combined brilliantly up top, the midfield retained control over the entire match, and the defense was composed and decisive. Traveling to face Torino on Sunday will be an entirely different task, but this was an encouraging show from the Viola.
Tatarusanu—6: Didn’t have much to do for most of the day.
Salcedo—7: Looked composed and confident. His passing was better than advertised. Docked a bit for the late goal.
de Maio—7: A slightly shaky beginning, but settled down and made it clear that he was simply better than the Qarabag forwards.
Tomovic—7.5: Wearing the captain’s armband (!), he was given a bit more license to attack and did a nice job of stepping into midfield when necessary to provide an easy passing option.
Tello—6.5: Lovely pass to set up the Kalinic goal, but still seems a bit out of sync. Not sure what happened to the player we loved last season.
Cristoforo—8: Won the ball, kept the ball, ran with the ball, ran without the ball, and showed some genius to get his assist. If he plays like this consistently, he’s a steal.
Sanchez—7: Displayed his superior ball-winning positional awareness while keeping his passing neat and simple. Already one of the more important players on the team.
Olivera—7.5: Charged up and down relentlessly and even put in a few good crosses. Should be able to overtake Milic in the pecking order if he keeps it up.
Bernardeschi—6.5: Fede was quieter than you might like, but had some nice moments. Generally drifted to the left before trying to find the strikers in behind the defense.
Kalinic—9: Could have scored a couple more, but was obviously a step ahead of the defense all night. He’s such a streaky player, so hopefully this is the start of another long run of good form for him.
Babacar—9: Starting to look like a well-rounded striker. We’re used to seeing him score physically impressive goals like his first, but the second was more promising for fans, in that his movement was excellent.
Vecino—7: Buzzed around the midfield maintaining possession all night, as his his wont. Probably should have scored, what with hitting the crossbar from point blank range, but nobody’s expecting goals from him at this point.
Zarate—10: Great goals. Looked dangerous every time he touched the ball. And the emotion he showed after scoring was wonderful. Welcome back, Maurito.
Chiesa—6: Showed some good touches and could have easily gotten an assist, but chose to shoot instead. Still looks like a very promising young player.