It wasn’t as bad as last year’s Coppa Italia run, which ended at the hands of Carpi and Kevin Lasagna (insert punchline here), but this year’s edition was still pretty disappointing for Fiorentina. After all, the Viola have won the domestic cup 6 times in their history; considering that their trophy case has 14 major awards—preseason tournaments don’t count—the Coppa comprises nearly half of the silverware on display. And with an appearance in the final just 3 years ago, this is the competition that the Gigliati are probably most likely to win any time soon.
As you probably recall, Fiorentina got to skip all the unpleasant qualifying rounds and began play in the round of 16 against Chievo Verona. Rolando Maran had turned the Flying Donkeys into a surprisingly solid group, but the Viola were still heavily favored. After utterly dominating the first half and seeing Ivan Radovanovic sent off, the hosts were on the verge of running away with it.
The second half started much the same, with Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa wreaking absolute havoc among the Gialloblu defense and frequently finding Nikola Kalinic in dangerous positions. However, the goal never came, and Mauro Zarate (remember him?) got himself a (rather soft) straight red, evening the numbers. Chievo nearly pounced, and it required some Ciprian Tatarusanu magic to preserve the clean sheet. Everything looked ready for another 30 minutes of play when Josip Ilicic wormed his way past ex-Viola defender Massimo Gobbi in the box. Gobbi fouled Lurch, and Berna converted the penalty in stoppage time to give Fiorentina the win.
It was about as scrappy and choppy a win as you could ask for, but a win it was. Paulo Sousa gambled by rotating his side, particularly his defense, quite a bit; Gonzalo Rodriguez and Davide Astori were both absent, as was Borja Valero. On the other hand, it’s hard to blame him too much for keeping his star players fresh, as Juventus traveled to the Franchi just 4 days later.
And so on trudged our heroes to the quarter-finals. The other 7 teams that advanced were Juventus, AS Roma, Napoli, AC Milan, Lazio, Inter Milan, and Cesena. While the latter would have probably been the easiest matchup, the Viola have never believed in easy. Instead they drew old Coppa foes Napoli, setting up a rematch of that 2014 final.
Both team’s fortunes have changed since then, albeit in opposite directions. The Partenopei have become a perennial top three team in Italy, and Fiorentina have looked rather feckless since Sousa took over. That fecklessness was on full display in the first half, as Napoli put their foot on the Viola neck, pinning the visitors in their own half for pretty much the entire 45 minutes with quick, incisive passing and the technical qualities of Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik. How they went into the break still scoreless is beyond me.
Sousa geed up his men for the second half, leading to a bit more positivity, but the purple shirts never looked like scoring. They certainly looked like conceding, though, as Insigne hammered a free kick off the cross bar. It was a sign of things to come, though, as the diminutive attacker picked up the ball after a Nenad Tomovic error (is there a more appropriate name to go in front of “error”?) and crossed for Jose Callejon, who headed home at the back post unmarked.
This one ended rather controversially, as Elseid Hysaj was sent off after his second yellow card and Maxi Olivera was shown a red card as well, although it was never made clear what he did to earn the ejection. And that’s pretty much how the match ended: an inexplicable and uninspiring fizzle, like a damp firecracker that sparks briefly before puttering out without ever doing anything interesting.
So let’s throw some grades out for the team’s Coppa Italia performance, shall we? (Yes, we shall.) We’ll start with Sousa. His heavy squad rotation against Chievo nearly cost his team the match but for some late Lurching, and he never figured out how to break down Napoli’s reserve backline of Raul Albiol and Nikola Maksimovic. He did a fairly good job of building a fairly stout defense against a powerful Partenopei attack, but sacrificed his own attack to do so. This sort of craven tactical approach simply doesn’t suit Fiorentina’s history, personnel, or general image. Therefore, I think it’s fair to give him a C-.
The players themselves didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory, either. Carlos Sanchez, Berna, Chiesa, Tata, Matias Vecino all acquitted themselves well, but pretty much everyone else was mediocre at best. While it’s hard to separate performance from the manager’s instructions sometimes, the lads looked listless and over-zealous by turns and never seemed likely to do the deed. We’ll give them a C+, but only because those 5 players previously mentioned gave their all.
So, averaging those out, we’ll call this one a C overall. An ugly win over an inferior team in the round of 16 is understandable, if undesirable, but rolling over and showing your belly to anyone, even a team as good as Napoli, is an embarrassment.