Stefano Pioli made one change to his usual XI, opting for the physical presence of Edimilson Fernandes over the energy of Marco Benassi. Rolando Maran shuffled his lineup quite a bit, bringing in Paolo Faragò, Luca Ceppitelli, and Fabio Pisacane at the back while handing a start to Juventus loanee Alberto Cerri as Leonardo Pavoletti was fit for just the bench, given that his son was born early that morning.
Much of the buildup to this one was about Fiorentina’s perfect record at the Artemio Franchi (which should have been the first warning sign), particularly against lower-half sides. Too, it was a chance for the side to get revenge for a 0-1 defeat at the hands of Cagliari last year that unceremoniously turfed the Viola out of the Europa League places. I’ll also note that the powerful wind would have a definite impact on the match.
The hosts started off much the better team, controlling the ball around midfield and occasionally venturing into the attacking third, but the Rossoblu defense stood strong and denied any real opportunities until the 12th minute, when a lovely little passage of play saw Fernandes switch play to Federico Chiesa on the right. The winger played a one-two with Gerson at the edge of the box and blazed through the defense before laying a lovely low ball across the face of goal that lacked anyone running to meet it.
That was about as close as we’d get for the next 30 minutes, during which the match lost any sense of rhythm. The visitors frustrated Fiorentina’s passing quite well with an assist from the wind, which prevented long passes into the channels for the forwards to chase; when forced to keep it short and on the carpet, Pioli’s men looked completely out of ideas. In fact, it was the Isolani who began making inroads, first through a powerful drive from Cerri on the break after an exchange with João Pedro, then through a series of corners around the half hour mark. The only response the hosts mustered was a thoughtful Cristiano Biraghi cross into Chiesa, but Simone Padoin recovered well after losing the winger and cleared it.
The 34-year-old defender was well beaten just before the half, though, when Chiesa picked up the ball on the wing before suddenly jinking his way into space and firing a shot that Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Cragno could only watch sail just past the far post. The whistle went shortly after, and the sides returned to the dressing rooms to discuss things amongst themselves; the empty pitch was scarcely less interesting than the action that had unfolded across the previous 45 minutes. It was a snoozer is what I’m saying.
The opening minute summed up Fiorentina’s day perfectly: some good pressure high up the pitch saw the Viola win a corner, which Jordan Veretout floated high and straight out of play over the goal. A moment later, Giovanni Simeone played Chiesa in behind, but a desperate sliding challenge from Pisacane denied the youngster a chance to shoot. A few minutes later, Ceppitelli mishit a clearance that Marko Pjaca neatly brought down under pressure in the area before laying off to Biraghi, who’d snuck into the area completely unmarked, but Pisacane managed to slide into the path of the shot and block that out too. Biraghi remained involved, though, when he lofted a perfectly weighted cross in the 52nd minute to Chiesa, whose free header whizzed on by the post with Cragno beaten. The Viola’s inability to test Cragno from good chances was quickly becoming the defining feature of the match.
Just before the hour, though, Fede worked some magic. The winger squirmed into the box and, while chasing down a ball, encountered Nicolò Barella. The midfielder swiped at Chiesa on his way by, and Fede was forced to leap out of the way to avoid getting kicked really damn hard. There was no contact, thank heavens, but it was clearly dangerous play and impeded the attacker in the box. A brief consultation with VAR later (as well as a booking for Barella) meant that Veretout stepped up to the spot and made no mistake, sending Cragno the wrong way to score his second spot kick of the season.
Maran responded by bringing on Pavoletti for Cerri, and the big striker paid dividends 10 minutes later to level the match. Faragò got loose down the left and hit a low cross in and Vitor Hugo completely switched off, letting Pavoletti get goalside of him and deflect the ball at the front post past Alban Lafont, who couldn’t have done anything. It was a huge letdown, but also probably a fair result given Fiorentina’s inability to create chances and wayward finishing when they did.
Pioli responded by throwing on Kevin Mirallas and Valentin Eysseric, but it simply wasn’t enough; the Viola seemed utterly defeated and let the Sardinians run the show, or at least turn it into a churning and ugly midfield battle with no chances either way, until the final 10 minutes. First, Chiesa nearly caught Cragno napping with a clever shot that the goalkeeper had to push just wide, and then Simeone got in behind the defense but took too long to shoot, letting Pisacane come back and poke the ball away. A couple minutes later, Lafont made one of the most incredible saves I’ve ever seen, kicking a João Pedro shot that took a big deflection two yards from goal, after Lafont had started his dive, and somehow booting it up and over the bar.
Two minutes from time saw Chiesa yet again nearly score. Biraghi was again the provider, clipping a perfect ball over the top after Fede and Fernandes set him loose down the wing, and the winger’s side-footed volley from a tight angle looked destined for the top corner until Cragno made a miracle save of his own. Then, in the first minute of stoppage time, Germán Pezzella and Nikola Milenković knocked heads hard enough to send both of them to the turf. They both needed a fair amount of medical attention, given the amount of blood, and the match fizzled out shortly after minute 100.
Full credit to Cagliari and particularly to Rolando Maran, who is, to quote Chloe Beresford, “expert in Serie A shithousery.” They came in with a plan to frustrate their hosts and stuck to it, earning a point. The problem here was that Fiorentina were unable to figure anything out. Sure, there were a few chances and half chances, but they surely weren’t schemed up by the mister so much as pulled out of thin air by Chiesa’s genius. Without the ability to play long into the channels for Chiesa and Simeone to chase due to the high wind, this team looked clueless.
Part of the problem is the lack of a credible Plan B. Dušan Vlahović remains a tantalizing prospect, but he’s also an awkward 18-year-old who spends most of his time with the Primavera. Cyril Théréau could have been a decent option, but he’s 35 years old and clearly not a part of Pioli’s plans. Mirallas and Eysseric are both hit or miss, while Pjaca and Simeone have been invisible for a month. Pioli needs to find some way to bring more out of the attack, which hasn’t scored a goal of its own from open play in 404 minutes (insert Goal Not Found jokes here). Whether that means shuffling the lineup or finding a new formation is up in the air, but Fiorentina look to have been figured out; Pioli had better have a way to bring them back, or it could be a long year.
Lafont: 7—Earns this grade solely for the miracle save he pulled on João Pedro. Wasn’t at all at fault for the goal and wasn’t really called on much otherwise. No distribution errors this week and no ill-advised jaunts off his line, but it would’ve been better if he hadn’t punched Cerri’s shot straight back in front of him into the box.
Milenković: 6.5—Kept the wolves at bay for the most part, although he did have a couple of nervy moments dealing with João Pedro in space. Never looked troubled against anyone else, though, and shut down his side of the pitch nicely. Hopefully his noggin is okay.
Pezzella: 6—Had a bit of trouble tracking the Cagliari forwards but was mostly quite solid. Made some good interventions in the penalty box, and made a couple of bad fouls in shooting range as well. Typically steady performance from the captain. Hopefully his noggin is also okay.
Vitor Hugo: 5—Definitely the shakiest of the backline today and switched off completely for Pavoletti’s goal. Seemed to be the primary target of the Sardinians’ attacks, and didn’t respond as well as we might have liked.
Biraghi: 6.5—After Chiesa, seemed the only player doing anything in the final third. Created a hatful of chances with his excellent crossing, but was let down by his teammates’ finishing. Lost his man tracking back a few times, but that’s the price you pay for needing your fullback so high up the pitch.
Fernandes: 6.5—Far and away his best showing for Fiorentina. Used his physical strength to bounce off would-be tacklers and keep the ball moving forward, showcasing some of the dynamism that we’d heard about, and was generally pretty well-positioned in defense, too. Switched play a few times and didn’t lose the ball cheaply. One of the few bright spots.
Veretout: 7—Well, he can definitely hit a penalty with the best of them. Other than that, though, he was pretty anonymous, even when Fernandes dropped into the holding role and let him go forward a bit. Can be tough to remember that, even though he’s the most creative midfielder in this side, that’s not really his strength.
Gerson: 5.5—Didn’t do anything extraordinarily bad, but didn’t do anything extraordinarily good, either. In fact, didn’t really do anything, aside from that one-two with Chiesa early on. Seemed like the perfect game for his ability to carry the ball into space, but he never really built up a head of steam.
Chiesa: 7.5—Obvious man of the match. Won the penalty, created chances, and only finished without a goal due to a miracle save by Cragno. His finishing remains wayward and he’s clearly getting frustrated with his teammates’ inability to take advantage of the defensive attention he draws. If the club wants to keep him around, they need to show that they can help him. Right now, he’s just kicking rocks.
Simeone: 4.5—When you’re a striker who doesn’t add to the buildup and doesn’t win in the air a bunch, you’d better get yourself in position to finish chances and put them in the net. Cholito didn’t get a shot off in this match and wasn’t involved at all. His workrate is great and his service is lacking, but as a striker you have to overcome that sometimes. He, uh, didn’t.
Pjaca: 5—Nearly as bad as Simeone. Had a couple of nice touches in the open field and set up Biraghi neatly, but that was the extent of his contribution. Might be time to give Mirallas a chance with the starters, as something just isn’t clicking.
Mirallas: 5—Didn’t do a whole lot to indicate that he’s the solution either, frankly.
Eysseric: 5—Played a couple of nifty passes, but wasn’t really able to influence the match at all during his brief time on the pitch, as Cagliari were packed into the box like sardines at that point.
Vlahović: n/a—Although not having a capable and proven backup striker is frustrating, it’s also nice that the big Serb can get his feet wet.