While most eyes will turn to the north to watch Inter Milan and AC Milan slug it out, those in the know will be watching things in Florence, where the ever-entertaining Tuscan derby takes center stage, and it could be an absolute cracker. Just 30 kilometers apart, the bad blood between these neighbors has increased considerably in the past year, as former Viola captain Manuel Pasqual signed with the Azzuri after being forced out, with trequartista par excellence Riccardo Saponara moving the other way this January in a move that sparked protests all across Empoli. Suffice it to say, this one should have a heck of an atmosphere.
In their last 10 Serie A meetings, Fiorentina are W7 D2 L1, although it’s been a bit more competitive than that recently, apart from the 0-4 beating that the Gigliati put on their smaller neighbors earlier this season that the visitors will no doubt be looking to avenge.
The referee for this one is Paolo Mazzoleni, under whose direction the Viola are W7 D4 L7, which is hardly reassuring. He most recently officiated the 2-2 draw at Udinese earlier this year, although some of our longer-memoried readers may recall him working the shocking 0-1 loss to Hellas Verona in 2015 that effectively cost Fiorentina a Champions League spot.
We all know what the deal is with Fiorentina this year: abject, crushing, and endless disappointment. Sure, the club has somewhat reversed their fortunes of late, having gone unbeaten in 6 straight league matches, but they’re averaging a single goal per match through that stretch, despite the wealth of attacking talent at their command. Manager Paulo Sousa is pretty well guaranteed to be sent packing at season’s end, European qualification is effectively out of reach, and the team doesn’t really have anything to play for.
Sousa will probably not have Matías Vecino (hamstring), who’s still dinged up from international duty; it’s a bummer because Vecino first broke through while on loan at Empoli under Maurizio Sarri, and it’d be fun for him to get a crack at his old mates. Saponara surely has to get a chance against is former employers as well (although knowing Sousa, he’ll trot out Josip Iličić instead), and Federico Chiesa may well return to the side at the expense of Cristian Tello. It’s unclear if the in-form Khouma Babacar will continue up top, or if Nikola Kalinić will resume his usual spot.
It’ll be business as usual in the 3-4-2-1 shape, with the Viola trying to keep the ball, work their way through a packed-back defense, and avoid conceding on the break. This is the sort of match in which the Dumutru Effect could easily make an appearance, so we’ll have to hope that Sousa can get the players ready to go (snort), or more realistically that the players can gee themselves up for a derby.
Sitting just 3 points out of the relegation zone, it hasn’t been an easy year for the Azzuri. Losing star man Saponara led to protests from the fans (and indirectly to our dubbing the trequartista as “the Cheese”), and the club has spent most of the season resting uneasily on the trap door. They’ll want to avenge that 0-4 loss at the Carlo Castellani, and they’ll feel good about doing it; their last trip to Florence ended in a 2-2 draw that required a second-half brace from Kalinić for the hosts to salvage a point.
Manager Giovanni Martusciello will be troubled by the absence of centerback Uroš Ćosić (knee) and will have to choose between Giuseppe Bellusci and Frédéric Veseli to replace him, while ex-Viola striker Alberto Gilardino (knee) is also out. Ageless wonder Massimo Maccarone may get the day off too, which means we could see Levan Mchedlidze and Manuel Pucciarelli up top, although the old man may decide to give it a go.
Empoli set up in a 4-3-1-2 with a good deal of pace in the side. Omar El Kaddouri and Pucciarelli will try to find space on the break, beat a man off the dribble, and set up poachers Maccarone or Mchedlidze in the area. The midfield 3 works hard, but will probably cede the center of the pitch to their opponents and look to play balls in behind. Maccarone’s 6 goals lead the club and Mchedlidze has 5; they’re the obvious dangermen, but El Kaddouri and Pucciarelli are more likely to make something happen. Also, Łukasz Skorupski has maybe been the best goalkeeper in Serie A this season, so prepare for him to frustrate you quite a bit.
How to watch
TV: Did you really think this one would be televised? C’mon, man.
Online: Here is your list of safe, reliable, and legal streams.
Ted’s Memorial Blind Guess Department
Given that this is a derby, Empoli need points to stay in Serie A, and that Fiorentina are likely beginning to check out for the season, this one could be a lot closer than any of us want to admit. Keeping with the Viola theme of the past couple of months, let’s make it a tense 1-0 to the hosts behind a Berna blast and a host of Skorupski stops.