Fresh off a scoreless snooze-fest against Genoa that nonetheless preserved a 5-match unbeaten run, Fiorentina traveled to the Sant’Elia to take on Sardinian outfit Cagliari. Stefano Pioli shook things up considerably, benching Germán Pezzella while handing a first-time Serie A start to 20-year-old Serbian/Gregor Clegane cosplayer Nikola Milenković. That wasn’t all, though, as the mister unexpectedly moved to a three-man defense with Vitor Hugo in the middle and Federico Chiesa shifted to wingback in what looked like a nightmare throwback to Paulo Sousa.
The switch in formations looked promising in the early going as it allowed the Viola to match the Rossoblu formation, making the defensive responsibilities fairly simple. Théréau linked well with the midfield, and Fiorentina won some early corners from which Federico Chiesa and Milenković fired shots, with the former requiring a save from Alessio Cragno.
From 15’ on, though, the Viola poured forward. Giovanni Simeone was once again exemplary for his movement and workrate but woeful for his finishing, wasting good passes from Chiesa, Jordan Veretout, and Cristiano Biraghi in the first half hour alone. He wasn’t the only culprit, though, as Chiesa blazed down the wing at 36’, skipped inside, skipped inside again, and again, and finally shot well off target as a furious Marco Benassi called for the ball with plenty of time and space to shoot.
Not everything went the visitors’ way, though, and João Pedro was at the heart of everything the Sardinians managed, twisting through the midfield, finding space to shoot, and playing in a succession of dangerous passes, although the Viola defense marshaled Leonardo Pavoletti well. When the halftime whistle blew, the Viola were clearly the superior team, with only their own poor finishing to blame for the scoreline.
The second half began much as the first had ended, although Théréau’s touch deserted him and he began to look much more like a passenger. Milan Badelj also took a ball to the, er, lower midsection, but bounced back after treatment. The first real half of the chance fell to Simeone, whose shot from a lovely Veretout cross was blocked out, although the young Argentine really should have done better. Moments later, Badelj missed a free header, possibly under the influence of the blow he’d absorbed earlier.
After 70 minutes, Pioli called on Khouma Babacar, who entered in place of Théréau. Shortly after, João Pedro was booked for an obvious dive in the Fiorentina area as he attempted to draw a penalty on the tyro Milenković, but it was so blatant that the referee had no choice but to book the Brazilian. The Viola had a few more bright moments, with Chiesa particularly involved, but nothing especially threatening until there were just 8 minutes left: Chiesa slithered down the right side and played a cross in that was barely too high for Simeone, but Babacar easily volleyed it home at the back post.
Despite bringing on attacker Marco Sau for defender Fabio Pisacane, Cagliari manager Diego Lopez had to watch his charges flail ineffectually around the midfield without threatening much more. Indeed, Chiesa nearly spurred a goal on the counter moments later, but the real drama unfolded in the 6 (!) minutes of stoppage time. A clearly frustrated João Pedro stomped on Fede’s foot, and one VAR consultation later, the Brazilian was sent off with a straight red. Chiesa got himself booked, too, as he re-entered the field of play before receiving the go-ahead from the fourth official, but the match ended with Fiorentina running out as deserved 0-1 winners.
Full credit to Pioli for changing his formation here, as the Viola battered a hapless Cagliari for 90 minutes without ever looking especially vulnerable. The three-man defense covered the width of the pitch well, allowing the wingbacks (especially Chiesa) to spend a lot more time high up the pitch, and the midfield three seems to be improving with every match.
The problem, of course, is up top. Théréau doesn’t seem to have the fitness to play for much more than an hour at a time—his touch utterly deserts him when he’s gassed—but the real problem is that Simeone’s finishing is approaching Mario Gómez levels. That’s not good. Cholito missed at least 4 reasonably good chances. However, he’s likely to remain the starter despite El Khouma’s absurdly better goals-per-90-minutes ratio (0.31 to 1), as Pioli stated in an interview after the clash that Babacar needs to do more.
Sportiello—6.5: Didn’t have to do a whole lot in this one, but kept his distribution tidy enough to earn a good grade.
Milenković—7: Looked really good. Shut down everything that came his way, showcasing some surprising agility and foot speed for a man his size. Also stepped forward into midfield with the ball on occasion and seemed way more comfortable in possession than you’d expect for a 20-year-old who’s never played in Serie A before. May well be the real deal.
Vitor Hugo—7: Stuck close to Pavoletti and undeniably got the better of the battle. Not a cultured passer in the Gonzalo mold, but showed strength, tackling, and anticipation without giving Cagliari an inch.
Astori—7: After a rough month, the captain seemed much steadier here. Solid when called into action at the back and stepped up to the midfield to overload the opposition numerous times. Hopefully, a win against his former side has his head right again.
Chiesa—7.5: Always looked dangerous, but his uneven decision making was on full display in this one. The non-pass to Benassi was particularly egregious, but he wasted a few other good opportunities by shooting when he should have passed. Got the assist, though, so it’s hard to be mad at him.
Benassi—6.5: Popped at goal once or twice and bustled around the midfield, helping set the tone defensively. He’s settled into his current role after a difficult beginning to the season, and is starting to look like a more hustle-oriented and slightly less skillful Alberto Aquilani as the third option for creativity and shooting whom opponents always have to account for.
Badelj—7: Feels like I’ve written this hundreds of times by now, but here goes. He won the ball and controlled the game with his excellent and understated positioning, kept the ball moving throughout, and did all the little things that let his teammates do the big things. That missed header was pretty egregious, though.
Veretout—7: Played some wonderful passes into Simeone in particular and probably should have had an assist or two. Looks like he could be the pickup of the season, and is exhibit 1A to prove that Corvino hasn’t lost his touch.
Biraghi—6.5: Never beaten down the wing and motored forward to provide width in attack. Put in a few nice crosses. He’s basically the Badelj of fullbacks at this point, a set and forget option out wide.
Théréau—6: Started strongly, dropping deep to pick up the ball between the lines and then lay it off for onrushing midfielders, but didn’t create any good chances and faded really badly after halftime. Might be better as an impact sub than a starter due to his fitness, which seems to have deteriorated with age.
Simeone—4.5: He ran incessantly and engaged the defense in a no-holds-barred battle for 90 minutes, pressing like a man possessed, but at a certain point, you need your €15 million striker to score goals instead of missing them like Nacho Castillo or el Tanque Silva.
Babacar—7: Didn’t do much besides score the goal, but that was the most important part of the match. Has scored 1 fewer goal than Cholito in a third as many minutes. He may not contribute as much to the pressing, but his goal-scoring record is beyond reproach these past two years and he deserves better.
Sánchez—n/a: Came in to solidify things and did that without actually seeing the ball much.
Laurini—n/a: See above.