Fiorentina had a small selection crisis, with captain Gonzalo Rodríguez suspended and Federico Bernardeschi (calf) and Matías Vecino (knee) both out. Josip Iličić, however, had surprisingly recovered enough from a back injury to start. Carlos Sánchez deputized in the center of defense, while Sebastian Cristoforo got a rare Serie A start in the heart of the midfield. Nenad Tomović and Hrvoje Milić also got the call. Federico Chiesa and Riccardo Saponara started from the bench.
Roberto Donadoni kept midfielders Blerim Dzemaili and Ádám Nagy on the bench in favor of Federico Viviani and Saphir Taïder, but otherwise named his expected XI.
Fiorentina began the half energetically, looking to physically impose themselves on the match. Cristoforo in particular set the tone in midfield with a number of hard tackles and a few fouls early on. The first real chance of the match fell to the visitors, though, as they broke quickly following a Viola corner. The move ended with a Simone Verdi shot smothered by Tomović, but it was a bit more nervous than anyone might have liked. 2 minutes later, though, Antonio Mirante mis-hit a clearance straight to Borja Valero, who tried to chip the ball back into the goal from 25 yards out. He was off-balance, though, and his shot was well off target.
Perhaps that settled the hosts down, as they began to boss the match, pinning Bologna back deep in their own half. Cristian Tello, playing on the right wing, made several impressive bursts forward, frequently squaring the ball instead of crossing it. Iličić was the most frequent recipient of these clever passes, but was profligate as ever, although he did have some lovely interplay around the area with Nikola Kalinić at times. In the 21st minute, Tomović surged forward, split two defenders, and lanced a shot on goal, but it was blocked out. Just a minute later, Iličić played an overhead kick from midfield to send Kalinić through. The Croatian went down in the box under pressure from Daniele Gastaldello, but referee Daniele Doveri waved play on. It sure looked like it should have been a penalty, though.
Fiorentina kept the pressure on, with Iličić very involved but rarely making the right choice. At 36’, Valero swung in a corner that Davide Astori dove to get his head to, but his spectacular effort was unfortunately straight at Mirante. A minute later, Tello cut inside and shot with his left. It was blocked, but Tomović, lurking in the area, somehow crossed it to the back post with a scorpion kick, and Valero headed it just wide from an offside position. 2 minutes later, the Spaniard nearly opened the scoring as Milan Badelj fed him on the break, but Mirante parried his powerful effort. Although the Viola were clearly in the ascendancy, they couldn’t seem to get a goal, and the fans were clearly dreading another 90 minutes of scoreless football that would require a late Kalinić decider.
However, Nikola was replaced at half time by Khouma Babacar; the Croatian hitman picked up a knock to the ankle and had to be subbed off. With the rain sheeting down, it certainly looked a dreary prospect at the Franchi until Milić swung in a cross from the left at the 51’ mark. Babacar rose above everybody and powerfully headed it down and into the corner of the goal, leaving Mirante utterly helpless. It was the Senegalese striker’s 6th Serie A goal of the season and 10th in all competitions.
Not satisfied with just one, the Gigliati continued their high pressure, keeping the Felsinei pinned back and creating chances from turnovers inside their opponents half. They easily could have added another, but the wasteful Iličić stopped several promising moves. The next big chance came in the 67th minute, as Tello scorched his way down the wing and zipped in a low cross. Mirante and Vasilis Torosidis bungled it, with the latter poking it inches wide of the post in what would have been a really embarrassing own goal. Moments later, Torosidis headed just wide from the corner which resulted from a rare Rossoblu foray forward, highlighting the need for the defense to remain focused.
The Viola regrouped and began stringing together passes, with substitute Saponara, Valero, and Tello heavily involved. Saponara forced a great save from Mirante with a blast from distance; the goalkeeper barely tipped it over his own bar. Although Donadoni brought on winger Federico di Francesco for Torosidis to add more attacking threat, his side looked likely to concede on the break, and, as stoppage time began, Saponara won a foul at the edge of the area. Valero hit a flawless shot over the wall, but Mirante’s superhuman save denied him a well-deserved goal in the final meaningful action of the match.
With AC Milan unable to overcome a spirited Pescara, the win here puts Fiorentina just 3 points behind the Rossoneri for 7th and 6 behind Atalanta for 5th. It was the 4th consecutive clean sheet for the good guys (all 1-0 victories) and 3rd win on the trot. Sousa has finally got this team playing the way he wants: high pressure, quick attacks, and soporific passing to kill off a match. Even with the makeshift defense, it’s clear that this Viola group still has heaps of quality. Particularly notable was their composure towards the end of the second half, when they alternately kept the ball to eat up the clock and dropped deep to give themselves space to break forward into. All in all, a very impressive team performance.
They’ll need it next week with a tricky fixture at Sampdoria coming up. Although the dream of European qualification grows dimmer every week, Fiorentina are still mathematically in the running, and their recent form means nobody’s counting them out yet. However, everyone had better hope that Kalinić is okay; otherwise, Babacar is the only striker in the side, which is a bit unnerving.
Tătăruşanu—6.5: Rarely called upon, but was quick off his line when necessary and good with his distribution.
Tomović—7: Was actually quite good. Kept his wing quiet, made some good stops, and showed a forward burst. This kind of quiet, competent performance against lower-half opposition is all we ever wanted from him.
Sánchez—8.5: Anticipated every attack and snuffed it out before it could start, either with powerful tackling or intelligent positioning. His distribution from the back was fantastic as well. Looks like a natural in the middle of the back three.
Astori—7.5: Assured as ever. Stepped into midfield a few times to create extra passing options, but never got out of position defensively. Just so, so steady back there.
Tello—7.5: As good a match as any he’s played this year. Used his pace to devastating effect down the wing, and played in some good crosses. Won an extraordinary number of corner kicks. Looks much, much more comfortable on the right than on the left; maybe that’s been his issue this year.
Badelj—7: You already know how he did. Won the ball in midfield and kept it moving nicely. Just like he does week in and week out.
Cristoforo—7: Better passing than advertised, but it was his constant buzzing around the center of the park that stood out. Set the tone with some physical play and never stopped running. Needs regular playing time to settle in, but looks like he could be a steal.
Milić—7: Was okay defensively and mostly a black hole going forward. Continually tried to beat his man off the dribble and failed, over and over again. All but one of his crosses were rather bad, too. But then, he got the assist. So, uh, I don’t know.
Valero—8.5—Ran the show. Motored up and down tirelessly, showed some dribbling tricks, and generally moved the ball through the final third with the kind of rapidity that unsettles a defense. Virtuoso performance. Now if only he could learn how to finish...
Iličić—6.5: Oh, Lurch. Time and again, blew past his man in the midfield and went striding down the pitch on the break, then made a bad decision and lost the ball. Had a bit of a Tello match in that he constantly looked dangerous without ever threatening.
Kalinić—6.5: Probably earned a penalty, but was awfully quiet otherwise. Had trouble staying onside. Let’s hope the knock he picked up is a minor one.
Babacar—7.5: The goal was absolutely magnificent, yes, but he’s still a bit raw. His movement is erratic; he could have scored again had he held his run once or twice. A lot of that is probably rust, of course, so you can’t be too hard on him. And he was a monster in the air, winning everything that came his way.
Saponara—7: Incisive on the ball. Showed the sort of fluidity around the box that gives defenders fits, both with the ball at his feet and with his clever positioning. Nearly scored, too. Can’t wait for a full season of him, Berna, and Chiesa.
Chiesa—n/a: Barely touched the ball.