Stefano Pioli sent out what is now recognizably his first choice XI. Gian Paolo Gasperini opted for Mario Pašalić over Josip Iličić; Lurch may not be fully healthy yet, but this may also have been Gasperini trolling the Viola by handing a start to a player who ended up in Bergamo instead of Florence. It was also a punishingly hot day for a match, and the heat clearly sapped the energy of everyone on the pitch.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Atalanta came out looking much the strong side, pinning Fiorentina deep in their own half. The hosts certainly didn’t help their cause by consistently missing simple passes and handing la Dea the ball in midfield. Duván Zapata and Papu Gómez consistently found space to run down the left channel, forcing Vitor Hugo into a series of 1-v-1 situations which troubled him; he held strong, but frequently misplayed the initial ball and was forced into a few nervous actions. Aside from a Chiesa blast that soared well high and a few corners, the Viola rarely moved forward.
That pattern continued for much of the half, although Alban Lafont was rarely called into action as the defense, particularly Germán Pezzella, held strong. The captain put in a brilliant block on Zapata and served as the last line of defense time and again as Vitor Hugo and Nikola Milenković stuck very close to their opponents, often harrying them all the way to midfield. Gasperini’s men, however, were very calm in possession, using goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini as an extra passing option and rarely looking troubled by the Viola press.
Just after the half hour mark, Marco Benassi was forced off with an injury to his ankle, so Edimilson Fernandes came on. Chiesa got a bit more lively, dancing around the Atalanta backline to create a few chances, but Fiorentina never looked like breaking the deadlock, even as they improved enough to push the visitors back a bit. When the whistle went for halftime, it had been, quite frankly, a pretty dull affair, more notable for the low quality of play than anything else. It’s fair to wonder if the likes of Chiesa and Giovanni Simeone were simply too exhausted to do anything of interest, especially given the temperature.
The visitors came out with guns blazing and Papu was at the middle of everything: shooting, dribbling, and getting Vitor Hugo booked in the 51st minute. However, the Viola defense refused to be breached, and it was the hosts who had a penalty shout at 56’, when José Luis Palomino appeared to handle a Vitor Hugo effort in the area during a corner, but the ref waved play on.
At the hour mark, though, he did signal the penalty after Chiesa drove into the area and went down under pressure. It sure looked like a dive, but VAR had nothing to say and Jordan Veretout coolly converted the spot kick for a 1-0 lead. Rather than reacting with dismay, though, Atalanta redoubled their efforts, and nearly leveled the score at 71’, when Lafont came way off his line to flap at a cross, but Emiliano Rigoni’s follow-up shot was wide of the post. 4 minutes later, Lafont again bungled a cross, but Vitor Hugo spared his blushes with a heroic clearance off the line.
Pioli responded to a third attacking change from Gasperini by handing Vincent Laurini his season debut in an effort to shut up shop, but it nearly backfired as Gómez shook free for a shot which Lafont brilliantly denied. Two minutes from time, Fiorentina had another strong penalty shout as Kevin Mirallas was dragged down in the area, but perhaps to repay the earlier soft PK, the Belgian’s shout was ignored. Deep into stoppage time, though, Chiesa got loose on the break and, after refusing to play in Simeone, earned a foul outside the area on the right. Cristiano Biraghi stepped up and blasted a free kick on frame that Gollini punched clear, but only after it had already crossed the line. The referee waved for a goal, but the players seemed unsure that it had actually counted until they saw the raised arm, and that pretty well ended the action.
The talk so far has all been about Chiesa’s dive to win the penalty, and how he should be suspended for his actions. While it was a dive, there was a bit of contact, and as we’ve seen, VAR is hardly a perfect system; just look at the Palomino handball and the Mirallas incident, which both seemed like stronger penalty shouts than the one that was given. Too, these things have a way of balancing themselves out, so Atalanta fans should maybe not get too worked up, as Gasperini did when he shoved Pioli after the whistle.
It was not a great display from the Viola, though, as passes from the midfield and defense never seemed to find anyone in a purple shirt. That can probably be chalked up to fatigue more than anything else, so getting a week’s worth of rest before traveling to Rome for a matchup with Lazio should be the best thing this team can do.
Lafont: 5—Made a brilliant stop on Papu’s shot, but someone ought to nail his feet to the line; has developed a bad habit of coming for crosses he can’t reach, and it’s put Fiorentina at risk several times. Then again, he’s kept 4 clean sheets, so he’s doing something right.
Milenković: 6—Came up big a few times defensively, but wasted a number of passes which should have found Chiesa, much to the winger’s frustration. Won a bunch of headers from Lafont’s goal kicks on the right wing, just like we used to see Marcos Alonso do.
Pezzella: 7—Time and again put out fires at the back, putting his body on the line with a number of sliding challenges and blocks. Clearly suited to the sweeper role with his defensive colleagues man-marking the opposing forwards. A real captain’s performance from the captain.
Vitor Hugo: 6.5—Looked very rough early on, getting bodied by Zapata and smoked by Papu. Dug in well and battled, though, turning it around to record a very strong overall performance. His aerial dominance is the most noticeable feature of his game, but his willingness to stick tight to a man all over the pitch is useful.
Biraghi: 7.5—Put in some dangerous crosses and closed down well in high (maybe suicidally high) positions. Was maybe a bit too positive early on with his positioning and left Vitor Hugo exposed, but dialed it back a bit afterwards. Oh, and that free kick goal? Simply magnificent.
Benassi: 5.5—Hustled around a lot, but wasn’t very involved and lost the ball too much. Hopefully his injury won’t keep him out too long.
Veretout: 7.5—Seemed to be the only Viola player who was able to consistently make the right decision. His passing was the only threat to the Atalanta midfield’s dominance. He’s still not a natural ball winner, but he knows when to bring the pressure, and he’s clearly an excellent penalty taker.
Gerson: 6—Always seemed on the cusp of brilliance, but never got the final touch right. His dribbling and physicality troubled Atalanta without threatening much. Worked his buns off defensively, though, and covered a lot of ground, so it’s not like he was worthless out there.
Chiesa: 5.5—Yes, he dove. No, that’s not the reason for the low grade. Largely invisible in the first half, he was a bit more assertive in the second, but still seemed a step off the pace. Probably just very tired, and should be back to his usual self in Rome.
Simeone: 5—Starved of service, but didn’t do much to help his cause. Never seemed like he could shake loose from the defenders, and lost the ball whenever it came his way, aside from one entertaining moment in which, while protesting to the ref about an uncalled foul, he turned away from another defender to win a very obvious foul.
Pjaca: 5—Almost, nearly, and not quite. We kept waiting for him to drive past his marker, and it never happened. This was the kind of match he should have shown in, the kind of match that needs someone to win an individual battle and do something brilliant.
Fernandes: 6—Was better with his passing than Benassi and brought plenty of energy, along with his usual willingness to press high. Still loses the ball a bit too cheaply at times, but remains a solid bench player.
Mirallas: 5.5—Drove forward a few times and made the defense uncomfortable with his pace and directness, but provided no end product. Looked a bit sharper than Pjaca, though, so Pioli may have a battle on his hands.
Laurini: 5—Was fine to help see out the match. May not see him again this year, so let’s enjoy our Vincent moment while we can.