Both Paulo Sousa and Rolando Maran rotated their squads heavily for this one. Sousa changed formations, too, reverting back to his 3-4-1-2 shape. Carlos Sanchez and Sebastien de Maio formed a very unfamiliar backline along with Nenad Tomovic—Davide Astori (leg) has a slight knock and Gonzalo Rodriguez was rested—while Milan Badelj replaced a possibly-still-injured Borja Valero. Federico Chiesa got the start on the right wing, while Mauro Zarate made a surprise start up top.
Fiorentina started very impressively, with Federico Bernardeschi nearly finding Mauro Zarate in the 3rd minute, although the Argentine couldn’t quite find the finish. That set the tone for the first 10 minutes, though, which the Viola dominated, winning a succession of corners and keeping the pressure on hard. Things settled down a bit thereafter, but the hosts were still on the front foot, as was made clear when Ivan Radovanovic rugby tackled Nikola Kalinic from behind to stop a break at the 17’ mark.
2 minutes later, though, Chievo Verona had the best chance thus far when, after a goalmouth scramble following a cross in from the left, Roberto Inglese lashed a shot just wide of the post. The Viola responded well with a dangerous counter a few minutes later that petered out when Bostjan Cesar ran into Chiesa outside the box. It was incidental contact and correctly not given as a foul, but it was a near thing.
Scenting blood, Fiorentina kept pressing. Maxi Olivera swung in a nice cross to Berna after half an hour, but the Italian international headed wide from distance. Moments later, Berna curled a free kick to the back post that Kalinic got a leg to but mishit way over the top; he probably should have done a lot better with it. At 38’, Ciprian Tatarusanu had a brain fart and “cleared” a ball straight to Antonio Floro Flores, but de Maio blocked it out for a corner.
With the half winding down, it was Tomovic, of all people, who suddenly burst forward down the right. Radovanovic clearly brought him down from behind at the edge of the box, earning himself a second yellow card and trudging off. Berna stood over the free kick at the edge of the box for what would clearly be the final kick of the half, and very nearly made it count: he spun a flawless shot over the wall and past a helpless Sebastian Sorrentino, but hammered it off the crossbar, and Celi immediately blew the half dead.
With a man advantage, Fiorentina came roaring out of the break. Matias Vecino sent Sorrentino sprawling with a low (!) and hard shot at 48’, and Kalinic nearly headed in the ensuing corner. Berna hammered a tremendous volley on-frame a minute later that forced the Chievo keeper to punch clear. But all this was just the prelude to a tantalizing non-goal: Chiesa wormed his way into the box, causing chaos as his shot ricocheted around the area and eventually past Sorrentino, but Nicolas Spolli somehow cleared it off the line (replays showed it needed another inch to cross all the way over), and Kalinic skewed the follow up volley 40 feet over the crossbar.
Perhaps deflated from their inability to garner a goal from that sequence, Fiorentina seemed to lose confidence and let Chievo back into the match. The Flying Donkeys won a succession of fouls over the next 20 minutes, turning the game into a choppy, stop-start affair that suited them much better.
Zarate turned the tables at 71’, and not in a good way. Tracking back on the break, he caught Samuel Bastien from behind and earned a straight—and awfully soft—red card. Now filled with renewed vigor, the Gialloblu surged forward, and nearly got their goal 5 minutes later on a jailbreak counter attack that ended with a indescribably unmarked (seriously, no defenders with 5 yards and another Chievo player back there too) Jonathan de Guzman heading an effort on-frame from the back post that Tata made a wondersave on before Sanchez cleared it back out.
Sousa brought on Josip Ilicic and Borja Valero in anticipation of extra time, but the former produced a big moment just before the final whistle. Lurch drove into the box and, with Massimo Gobbi chasing him, slowed down just enough for the ex-Viola defender to bundle him over to win the most obvious of penalties. Berna stepped up to the spot, took a long, slow run up, and popped the penalty right past Sorrentino. 1-0 and game over.
With both managers fielding unfamiliar lineups, a rather disjointed game was always in the cards. The Viola should have scored twice and certainly were the better team, which was nice, at least, but it wasn’t a beautiful match by an stretch. Credit to Sousa, though, for dropping Sanchez into the backline, where he was clearly the man of the match.
But using Zarate up top was a problem, as the striker loathes passing and slows down the attack considerably, which in turn forced the entire creative burden on Berna. He responded well, but Kalinic needs a lot more dedicated service to look even borderline dangerous, as he can’t make his own shot. Without another creative presence on the pitch (Borja, come back), Berna was the only one making anything happen and obviously needed some help.
As Napoli edged Atalanta 3-2, it sets up another Coppa Italia date with the Partenopei, which is certainly not a matchup the Viola would have wanted. But for now, we can enjoy the win and start biting our nails for the Juventus match on Sunday.
Tatarusanu: 6.5—The save on de Guzman was as good as the sliced clearance to Floro Flores was bad. Has been very uneven of late and may be nervous about the Sportiello rumors.
Tomovic: 6.5—That run forward at the end of the half was astonishingly good, and his all-round game was fine. Mostly held Inglese in check.
Sanchez: 8.5—Magnificent for all 90 minutes. Had one mistimed tackle that nearly sent Inglese through on goal, but other than that, he was utterly flawless. Great in the air, unbeatable on the ground, always in the right place, and superb in possession. Revelation.
de Maio: 5—Had trouble with Floro Flores all night, getting beaten by the veteran striker on several occasions. Also hit a truly atrocious cross at one point that nearly soared out of the park.
Chiesa: 6.5—Active and made himself a pest for the defense, but sometimes left Tomovic isolated on defense. Until his final product matches his ability to beat his man, pesky is all he’ll be.
Badelj: 7—Put in a typical Badelj performance in the middle of the park. Won the ball, spread play, stuck to the shadows, avoided direct sunlight.
Vecino: 7—Another lung-busting show in the engine room. Buzzed around the center of the pitch, always offering an option for the defense, and rarely lost the ball. Needs to be a bit more incisive with his passing, but not a bad performance at all.
Olivera: 6.5—A couple nice crosses, a nice run or two, and hard-nosed defense. While he’ll never be mistaken for a star, he’s just a consistent and competent player, and showed that yet again.
Bernardeschi: 8—The fulcrum for the whole team. His passing, shooting, and dribbling were excellent, and he even brought others into the game. The penalty was just icing on an all-around excellent performance which seems to be his new baseline.
Kalinic: 5—Invisible except when bobbling away half-chances. Didn’t do much with his holdup play, either. In fairness, Zarate frequently stopped the offense and missed him on a few occasions.
Zarate: 3.5—The red card was undeserved, but he was really bad all game, too. Held the ball too much, always looking to come inside onto his right foot, and bogged down the entire attack. Seems to work better as a substitute than a starter.
Cristoforo: n/a—Played 10 minutes and motored around, but didn’t have time to do much.
Ilicic: 6.5—Won a cagey penalty, which deserves commendation, and had a decent chance that ended with a poor shot. Clearly off spot-kick duty now.
Valero: n/a—Played, like, 3 minutes.