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SPAL 1-1 Fiorentina: Recap and player grades

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Or, in which we try to write about a match that was a 90 minute belch.

Spal v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
The 2-million-euro man.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Pre-match

Fiorentina came into this one having lost two in a row and perhaps underestimated their recently-promoted opponents, which was certainly a mistake; SPAL had taken 4 points from their past two matches and seemed confident. Stefano Pioli handed Maxi Olivera a rare start at leftback and used Bruno Gaspar at rightback, but otherwise trotted out his expected XI, with Marco Benassi withdrawn from that awkward trequartista spot into central midfield in a 4-3-3. SPAL set out with a 4-4-2 that was clearly designed to defend in two banks of four and run strikers through the channels on the counter.

First half

The hosts threatened in the first minute, as Manuel Lazzari stormed past Olivera directly from kickoff and swung in a dangerous cross that both Alberto Paloschi and Marco Boriello nearly reached. It set the tone for the Biancazzurri, who dominated the opening quarter hour and nearly took the lead through ex-Viola defender Felipe (SPAL’s captain, by the way), who couldn’t quite make contact with an excellent Federico Viviani free kick in the 9th minute.

Fiorentina woke up, though, and started dominating proceedings. The midfield began moving the ball quickly through the center of the pitch, and Gaspar began running riot down the right wing, surging past Federico Matiello time and again. Despite keeping the ball in SPAL’s half and winning several corners under the jam-packed visitors’ stands, Fiorentina were unable to generate any shooting opportunities against a determined defense, although some brilliant work from Gaspar, Federico Chiesa, and Gil Dias saw the latter slot home, only for a late flag (correctly but dang was it close) raised for offside to nullify the goal a bit after the half hour mark.

10 minutes later, though, the SPAL won a free kick after a very soft foul call. Viviani put it into the box and Felipe again reached it, this time heading the ball sharply off the post. The rebound fell to Paloschi, who easily tapped home for the lead. In stoppage time, SPAL nearly doubled their lead as Alberto Grassi led a counter that caused chaos in the box. Marco Sportiello charged out from between the sticks and poked the ball away from Boriello, who had his back to the keeper. Despite the veteran striker’s furious and possibly well-merited appeals for a penalty, play continued and the half ended.

Second half

Pioli shuffled the deck during the break, bringing Khouma Babacar on for Olivera. Carlos Sánchez dropped into the backline to form more of a 3-4-3ish formation. The Senegalese striker’s physicality provided a new focus for the Viola attack and he troubled SPAL’s defenders quite a bit, winning aerial balls and holding up play for his teammates. In the 52nd minute, El Khouma turned past his marker and cracked a hard shot, but it was straight at Alfred Gomis. 4 minutes later, Chiesa cut in from the left wing, beat three defenders, and fired just over from a tight angle. The Viola were starting to come alive.

Naturally, then, the hosts put the ball in the back of the net again at 57’. Paloschi got in behind the defense and finished neatly past Sportiello, but the VAR quickly determined that he was well offside. Pioli brought on Riccardo Saponara for Dias to make more of a 3-5-2 at 63’. A minute later, Babacar flicked a corner on for Sánchez, whose venomous volley was deflected by a sliding Grassi. It was emblematic of the afternoon for the Viola, who had SPAL pinned back but couldn’t work Gomis at all.

At 80’, Giovanni Simeone struck an audacious looping volley on the half-turn that nearly dropped in, but it was Chiesa who found the equalizer moments later as Cholito recovered his own bad touch on the break and fed in the teenager, who finished as cool as you could like. Although there was a bit of late drama as Marios Oikonomou was sent off for a second bad foul, neither team really threatened much for the rest of the match; Pioli didn’t even bother with his third substitute.

Post-match

A point against a recently-promoted side sitting in 17th is disappointing and there’s no other way to describe it. SPAL did exactly what Pioli knew they’d do, and Fiorentina still seemed to have no idea how to break them down. The formation change in the second half shut down Gaspar, who’d been the Viola’s most dangerous player, but Babacar looked sharp as well. The only real positive from this is that Fiorentina stay in 9th place, ahead of Bologna and Chievo Verona on goal difference.

Player grades

Sportiello—5: Looked shaky all match. Not at fault for the goal, but could have been sent off for his mad rush out at Boriello. Probably just a hiccup from a normally reliable goalkeeper.

Gaspar—6.5: Was the standout man in the first half, constantly overlapping and pulling the SPAL defense and midfield out of position. Moved forward to wingback in the second half, but didn’t look nearly as good. Clearly prefers to start from deeper positions before surging forward.

Pezzella—5.5: Picked up a silly booking, but played fine otherwise. Did let Paloschi and Boriello cause him some problems.

Astori—6: Pretty much the same as Pezzella, but without the booking and with a few forays forward.

Olivera—4: Spent 45 minutes getting skinned alive by Lazzari. His lack of pace really let him down. Definitely not a threat to Biraghi’s starting spot.

Veretout—5.5: Pushed out to left wingback in the second half, but even when working in his preferred central locations, he didn’t make much impact. Rather an off match for a guy who’s generally been pretty solid. Missed Milan Badelj.

Sánchez—6: Did everything we knew he’d do, muscling opponents around the middle and keeping his passing tidy. Had a couple of bone-headed moments, but was his usual rock-like self.

Benassi—6: Looked a bit more active than usual, probably because he was allowed to play deeper. Motored into space, hit a couple of threatening passes into the box, and smacked a couple of decent shots.

Dias—5: Had almost no impact, even against a backline lacking in pace. This should have been his kind of game.

Simeone—5.5: The assist was good, but that was pretty much all he did. Doesn’t contribute to the buildup and is purely a passenger if he’s not getting crosses or balls over the top.

Chiesa—7: Looked sluggish in the first half, but woke up after an hour and began running at opponents with the ball. Clearly the only Viola attacker capable of winning matches on his own.

Babacar—6.5: Much better than Simeone. Challenged the SPAL defense physically and held play up well, allowing his mates to get involved.

Saponara—5: Largely invisible.