Paulo Sousa was without Davide Astori (suspended), so had to make do with Nenad Tomović instead. The real head-scratcher, though, was his decision to start Sebastian Cristoforo next Borja Valero behind the striker, leaving playmakers Federico Bernardeschi, Riccardo Saponara, and Josip Iličić on the bench against a team that the Viola probably could have dominated the middle against without an extra midfielder. Eusebio di Francesco, meanwhile, handed starts to former Viola players Alberto Aquilani and Alessandro Matri, which left us all with a bad feeling.
Things nearly started off disastrously, as Alfred Duncan launched an absolute rocket that Ciprian Tătăruşanu barely tipped over following a 3rd minute corner kick. Just 5 minutes later, Domenico Berardi ghosted past Carlos Sánchez on the wing, then cut in and tried his luck from a tight angle, although Tata was equal to the effort. An off-the-rhythm Fiorentina continued to hand their hosts the initiative by bobbling possession in the middle and exhibiting all the cutting edge of a cereal bowl going forward. Indeed, the most constructive thing the visitors managed was getting Milan Badelj injured; Berna came on for the midfielder and provided a bit of attacking spark and connection with the extremely isolated Nikola Kalinić.
The injury actually improved the Viola, as Valero dropped deeper and helped spark attacks from the midfield. However, extremely wayward shots from Matías Vecino and Federico Chiesa were the only apparent outcomes. The first half hour of the match, in fact, was pretty dang unwatchable, as neither team seemed capable of creating anything. Just past the 30 minute mark, though, Maxi Olivera powered past Claud Adjapong on the left and blazed in a cross that was just too high for Kalinić at the near post. It was a warning shot, though, as moments later Berna flew into the area like he’d been shot out of a cannon, forcing Adjapong into an obvious foul. Kalinić strode to the spot and fired a low penalty which Andrea Consigli punched away, then poked his follow up straight at the Sassuolo keeper, keeping it scoreless and certainly looking like one of those days.
Borja picked up the ball in an inside left position, lifted his head, and lofted a delightful chip into the path of an onrushing Chiesa, who’d switched to the left side for a moment. The youngster took a touch with his chest to settle, then coolly dispatched his shot underneath Consigli to give his side the lead. Rather than energizing the match, though, the goal seemed to deflate things even further, with the only action of note in the remaining moments coming from Matri, who pinged a shot off the post while one-on-one with Tata (of course), although he was correctly flagged offside (of course) and it wouldn’t have counted anyways. It looked the the Viola were well on their way to the sort of boring win over a midtable side that we’ve been hoping all year they’d figure out.
The half began much as it had ended: stale, with a few hard fouls the only things really worth mentioning. However, things picked back up in a big way at the 52 minute mark, when Matri lost his marker in the area and got a free shot on goal off a cross. Tătăruşanu somehow turned it away, leading to a mad scramble in the box and eventually a clearance. Tata denied Matri again moments later after the striker rose above Gonzalo to head one straight at the goalkeeper, and the Romanian number one fearlessly punched out a corner at the hour mark, leading to a promising Viola break which only ended when Vecino’s shot was blocked by a last-ditch Adjapong tackle.
The overall tenor of the game, though, remained scrappy rather than impressive, with both sides scuffling away in the middle without producing much result. At 69’, though, Berna must have thought he’d put it beyond reach; after the Neroverdi cleared a corner, he drifted across and kept himself onside to head Cristian Tello’s long cross in, but the linesman incorrectly ruled him offside. Moments later, di Francesco pulled Matri and brought on former Fiorentina Primavera striker Pietro Iemmello, leaving the option for a Viola ex to score as a distinct possibility.
Sousa responded by bringing on Khouma Babacar for Cristoforo, which seemed to work for about 10 minutes, as Sassuolo were unable to make their advantage in numbers count for much. However, they won a corner at 85’, and it was, of course, Iemmello who headed it home. To his credit, the striker didn’t celebrate against his former club, but it sure looked like he’d rung down the curtain on this one.
Except, of course, that the game ain’t over until Federico Bernardeschi damn well says it’s over. In the 4 minutes of stoppage time, the Italian international surged forward to latch onto a through ball from Vecino, then picked his head up in the area and curled a guided missile of a shot in at the far post through 2 defenders and past a stunned Consigli. Gavillucci blew the match dead pretty much then, and Fiorentina limped off the pitch with a deeply unlikely point.
Quite frankly, this should have been a win. Sousa’s decision to start a ball-winning midfielder (Cristoforo) as a playmaker instead of Berna or Saponara was inexcusable, and his team’s inability to generate chances against a resolute Sassuolo defense was the obvious result. Cristoforo ran til his lungs burst and won the ball non-stop, but was rarely in a position to support Kalinić and killed several opportunities which a more naturally attacking player would have killed for.
It’s just another sign that Sousa seems to have lost the thread. It’s also worth noting that his team has acquired a red card in 3 of their past 4 matches, which certainly looks like a serious lack of concentration on the players’ part. And that falls squarely on the manager. There’s a genuine risk of seeing the whole squad give up on the remaining 3 matches if someone doesn’t step up soon.
Tatarusanu: 8—Made a couple of really impressive stops and commanded his area fearlessly. Not at fault for either goal.
Tomovic: 6—Mostly coped well with Ragusa and Politano in open play. Tackled well, made some solid clearances in the box, and occasionally pretended to be a threat to bomb forward.
Gonzalo: 4—Hate to say it, but he just doesn’t look like he cares. Several stupid fouls are the main evidence, but getting easily outleapt by Matri is bad too. Was well out of position before conceding the penalty and can’t blame anyone but himself.
Sanchez: 6—After Berardi skinned him early, looked like he was in for a long day, but held strong for the most part against a very talented opponent.
Chiesa: 7.5—The goal was a peach, but the teenager wasn’t actually all that sharp today. His talent is undeniable, but his decision-making remains, well, a work in progress.
Vecino: 6.5—Got an assist and basically did what he does every week. Buzzed around, won the ball, passed the ball, and worked as hard as he could.
Badelj: 6—Didn’t do much before getting hurt.
Olivera: 6.5—Offered a bit more going forward than expected and tracked back well. Continues to look like a decent option in a platoon at leftback. Think Massimo Gobbi.
Cristoforo: 5.5—Hard to rate. Ran like a man possessed and contributed well to the defensive end, but did nothing going forward with his passing, dribbling, or positioning. The rating is Sousa’s fault for trying to make him something he’s not; Cristoforo’s a quality player.
Valero: 7.5—Another masterclass from the Spanish maestro. The assist oozed quality, but it’s his ability to move the ball from the middle of the pitch to the attacking third really quickly that makes him special. Really put in a shift defensively, too.
Kalinic: 4.5—Missed both the penalty and the follow-up tap-in, and did pretty much nothing else. In fairness, spent much of the game completely isolated and desperate for service.
Bernardeschi: 8—Would have had a brace but for the assistant referee’s mistake, but the one goal was good enough for now. How in the hell do you start him on the bench?
Tello: 5.5—Ran very quickly up and down the wing, but accomplished little else of note.
Babacar: n/a—Didn’t have enough time to establish himself.