Stefano Pioli rotated his side for the midweek match, giving us a welcome respite from his locked-in first XI. Perhaps the most exciting addition to the lineup was 20-year-old Polish goalkeeper Bartłomiej Drągowski, who made his first competitive appearance for the Viola after a year and a half on the roster. Bruno Gaspar, Carlos Sánchez, Riccardo Saponara, and Khouma Babacar were also handed starts, although the continued absence of young attackers Ianis Hagi, Simone Lo Faso, and Rafik Zekhnini raised the ire of some fans.
Things started about as perfectly as they possibly could have for Fiorentina: Sampdoria striker Duván Zapata made a lazy backpass straight to Gaspar, who in turn shifted the ball to Marco Benassi, who neatly threaded it through for Khouma Babacar to run the length of the pitch, shrug off a challenge from Vasco Regini, and power past Cristiano Puggioni, handing the Viola a lead after just 90 seconds.
It didn’t look like a fluke, either, as the boys from Florence utterly dominated the first half hour. Babacar looked world-class, winning every physical battle with the Blucerchiati defense and cracking another couple of shots that forced Puggioni into sharp saves. Federico Chiesa went on a couple of nice runs, and Riccardo Saponara drifted around between the lines to connect things. In the 32nd minute, one of those Chiesa runs resulted in a corner, from which Germán Pezzella smashed a header just inches wide.
However, Samp grew into the match as the Viola faded, and the last 15 minutes belonged to the visitors. After a spell of pressure in which they targeted defensive weak link Gaspar with the power and pace of Zapata, Samp won a corner which rattled around the box before dropping to an unmarked Édgar Barreto, who lashed home. After VAR confirmed that the Paraguayan was onside (by the slimmest of margins), it looked like all that hard work was for naught, and the half ended with the Viola looking a bit shell-shocked, leaving the momentum firmly with Sampdoria.
Pioli did well to regroup his charges during the break, as they emerged looking refreshed and refocused. Chiesa motored forward on another couple of runs, Davide Astori managed to turn a dramatic diving header on target from a free kick, and Saponara volleyed hilariously high and wide after Puggioni came way out of his goal to head clear through ball, leaving the net unattended.
However, it was moments before the hour mark that Babacar again sparked his team, bringing down a sky-high ball in the area with a gloriously soft first touch, turning, and forcing Regini to trip him. After consultation with the VAR, the penalty was awarded, and Jordan Veretout (rather than Babacar, who’s got an excellent record from the spot) sent Puggioni the wrong way to restore the lead.
Samp responded well, throwing numbers forward, and created some decent chances, including a free kick in the 71st minute which Gianluca Caprari smashd off the upright with Drągowski well beaten. 6 minutes later, though, the Genovese outfit won a penalty of their own through Gastón Ramírez, whom Astori obviously impeded in the area—the Viola captain looked like Carlos Salcedo for moment. Ramírez duly slotted home, although Drago nearly got the save, and it was all knotted up again.
Say what you will about their style, but the Gigliati poured on the pressure after that, bunkering Samp into their own area. Giovanni Simeone and Chiesa both had chances in the 82nd minute, but neither could get the ball out from under their feet in time, and Gaspar played in a nice cross moments later which was just too far ahead of Cholito. The young Argentine would figure in the scoreline, though, as he chased a ball into the channel. As he and Regini battled for it just inside the area, Nicola Murru blundered through and hit the ball with his bicep. One chat with the VAR later, Veretout was sizing up his second penalty, which he coolly put away to restore the lead with just 2 minutes left.
Well, you certainly can’t accuse Pioli of playing a boring match here. He got his starting tactics right, with Saponara playing a central role rather than on the wing and Cristiano Biraghi overlapping tirelessly to provide the width. Moving the Cheese to a central position also helped counteract Samp’s numerical superiority in the middle, although it did allow Jacopa Sala free reign down the wing. However, the typically excellent man-marking in midfield stymied the visitors for most of the match.
The main criticism of Pioli seems to be that he refuses to play the youngsters, but it’s hard to blame him here. Samp sit 6th in Serie A and already beat the Viola earlier this year. It’s good to see the club taking every match seriously, rather than punting the Coppa as Paulo Sousa did. Really, Pioli’s in a bit of a double-bind: he’s got to develop the young players but also win, and as he can’t do both, he’s going to make a lot of people unhappy regardless of which course he takes.
Drągowski—6: Not at fault for either goal, but looked a bit nervous at times. Besides the goals, didn’t really face many shots. Jury remains out.
Gaspar—5: Didn’t get forward like we’re used to seeing from him, and was picked on by Zapata and Caprari once they realized that he’s just not great defensively. Lost the ball in some dangerous areas.
Pezzella—6: Nearly scored a very good header, but was a bit slow stepping up for Barreto’s goal. Other than that, was solid as a rock, as per usual.
Astori—5: The penalty was really, really dumb, and it was a bit concerning to see a veteran like Davide step in front of a guy in the box and stop dead without playing the ball at all. Hopefully it’s just a hiccup and he’ll get right soon.
Biraghi—6: Was mostly invisible, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a defender. Held down his wing well and got forward to provide width on the left, although he didn’t do much with the ball.
Benassi—6: Got the assist for Babacar, although the big man did most of the work. Buzzed around the middle well but didn’t provide much quality going forward.
Sánchez—5.5: Lost possession a little too easily, but did well to clog up the middle of the pitch and protect the zone right in front of the defense.
Veretout—7: Two well-taken penalties, lots of energy in the middle, and a couple good passes into the attackers. Beginning to think that Aston Villa was crazy to let him go.
Chiesa—6.5: Burst through the midfield a few times, but still doesn’t deliver the end product very reliably. Had a chance to play in Babacar just before the break, but chose to go it alone instead and lost it.
Babacar—7.5: This is the Khouma we’ve been clamoring for this past decade. Physically dominated the defenders, showcased pace and an incredibly soft touch, and, most importantly, consistently made good runs off the ball. When he plays like this, he’s far and away the best striker in Florence.
Saponara—6.5: Did well to find space between the lines and force Samp’s midfielders or defenders to chase him around. Didn’t create much for himself or others with his passing, but his positioning made things easy for everyone else.
Simeone—6: Helped win the decisive penalty, but could have scored before that. Still developing that finisher’s instinct.
Vitor Hugo—6: Didn’t let anything by, but wasn’t really tested.
Eysseric—n/a: Didn’t see enough of the ball to really have any impact.