Coming off elimination from the Champions League, it was hard to say if Napoli would be in a mood to avenge their ejection from the premier continental competition or wallow in the malaise that got them there in the first place. Maurizio Sarri rotated his squad, with midfielder Piotr Zieliński stationed out on the wing. Stefano Pioli, on the other hand, trotted out the exact eleven that we’ve come to expect from him.
The match began energetically enough, but there wasn’t a whole lot of quality on either side. Fiorentina, either by design or general incompetence, sat back and rarely ventured forward in the first quarter hour or so, allowing the Partenopei to test the defense unsuccessfully. However, the Viola were well-marshaled at the back and didn’t allow any real chances.
After those first 15 minutes, though, Fiorentina took the match by the scruff of the neck. Marco Benassi provided the first warning with a left-footed shot from distance that fizzed just past Pepe Reina’s post after a rather wayward pass from Giovanni Simeone. The striker wasted another good chance by firing right at the keeper, but was offside anyways. However, the Viola managed to look dangerous on the counter without actually threatening much.
Neither side provided much else other than scrappiness for the remainder of the half, although the hosts shamelessly tried to kick Federico Chiesa out of the match and vociferously complained at every turn, even though nobody was booked. With five minutes left until halftime, though, Cholito came alive. First he latched onto a wonderful through ball from Biraghi, but was only able to head straight at Reina under pressure. A minute later, Cyril Théréau flicked a long pass into the channel, and the young Argentine picked it up to get a one-on-one with the keeper. His shot was straight at Reina, though, leaving the few traveling Fiorentina fans speechless with disappointment. That was the final action of the half, and the teams went in scoreless, although the Viola had been far and away the better side.
Sarri must have had some cigarettes of fury during the break, because Napoli came out like gangbusters. Once again, the Azzuri dominated territory, pinning the visitors deep in their own half and snuffing out any attempts to relieve pressure. 10 minutes after the restart, Dries Mertens played in Zieliński, but a mammoth save from Marco Sportiello denied the Pole, and he stopped Kalidou Koulibaly’s header from the ensuing corner too. Marek Hamšík drilled a powerful effort jut wide of the post shortly after, emphasizing Napoli’s dominance.
At the 71 minute mark, Sportiello again came up huge. This time, Mertens found himself all alone in the box, but Sporty made himself big and denied a stinging shot from the Belgian. That seemed to take the wind out of the Partenopei sails, although Cristiano Biraghi had to make a brilliant block to prevent a cross from reaching José Callejón, which summed up both Napoli’s intent in the second period and Fiorentina’s steadfast refusal to give up an inch. The last real action in the match came as Napoli desperately pressed for an equalizer and substitute Marco Rog wildly slid in on Sportiello way after the keeper had cleared the ball, but the Croatian somehow avoided a red card, which would have been well-deserved.
The first half of this one was very impressive from the visitors. Pioli’s vision, while not yet entirely visible, is becoming clearer every week, and his charges were fantastic in the first 45. The midfielders were absolutely brilliant, keeping their shape, clogging the middle, and springing forward at the right moments to win the ball and start quick breaks. With a bit more composure from Cholito, the Viola could have gone into the break with a lead.
The second half, though, was a perfect distillation of why so many fans criticize the Gigliati mister. Fiorentina offered absolutely nothing going forward as Pioli obviously instructed the team to sit back and soak up pressure. By handing the initiative to Napoli, he nearly undid all the good work from the first half. His substitutes were troubling as well. Carlos Sánchez for Théréau pushed Benassi out to the wing, where the Italian is clearly not comfortable, and removed an attacking outlet. As the Neapolitans pushed forward, any one of Valentin Eysseric, Simone Lo Faso, or Ianis Hagi could have taken advantage of space in the wide areas, but Pioli left them all on the bench. I appreciate that he’s building a strong, defensively capable side that will create chances through pressure, but that approach still requires a trigger-man, and Fiorentina as currently constituted have just Fede Chiesa. Some youthful exuberance in the attack could go a long way.
Sportiello—8.5: Made a series of world-class saves, particularly on Zieliński and Mertens, and acted as a security valve for the defense in possession. A full season of performances like this could see him start getting consideration for the Italy squad.
Laurini—6: Handled everything Napoli could throw at him in the first half, but lost Zieliński for the Pole’s one-on-one and kept Mertens onside. Definitely owes Sportiello a beer or three.
Pezzella—7: Stood firm against every attack, consistently turning away anything that got into the box. Coped well with the pace and quickness of Mertens.
Astori—7: Watching Astorinho motor into midfield to start attacks is fun, but he was excellent on the back foot as well. Swept up everything that got through the midfield screen.
Biraghi—7: Played a wonderful ball in for Simeone in the first half, but gets the good grade for a really impressive defensive display. Kept Callejón quiet all night and got a highlight reel block on the Spaniard in the second half.
Badelj—7.5: Consistently broke up Napoli’s passing moves in the middle with perfect positioning and assured tackling, and moved the ball quickly to the wings or his fellow midfielders in possession. Absolutely the fulcrum of a great defensive performance.
Benassi—6.5: Pressed the Partenopei midfield brilliantly in the first half and motored forward to help the attack. After he was pushed out to the wing, completely vanished from the match.
Veretout—6.5: Like Benassi, pressed well and defended well. Didn’t do a whole lot in possession, but frustrated the opposition well enough to earn a positive grade.
Chiesa—5.5: Spent the first half getting kicked by a remarkable variety of Napoli players, which seemed to take him out of the match. It’s a lot to ask of a teenager, but he’d better get used to this kind of special treatment. Never found his rhythm.
Simeone—5: Sprinted all over the place to help start the defensive pressure and showed some good movement off the ball, which helped his team immensely. But a striker’s job is to score, and he missed a handful of great chances to do so.
Théréau—5: Aside from a flick to Simeone to create a chance in the first half, didn’t make an impact.
Sánchez—5.5: Had a few nervy moments in possession, but got himself out of trouble when necessary. Got too far forward at one point, leaving space that led to the Mertens one-on-one.
Dias—5: Not really his fault that there wasn’t any attacking intent from the rest of the team.
Gaspar—6: Did his job and didn’t give up a goal, which we’ll count as a win for him.