Stefano Pioli turned to Kevin Mirallas ahead of Marko Pjaca again (reports of a possible disciplinary issue for the Croatian emerged earlier today and are worth monitoring), but otherwise stocked his XI with the usual names. Eusebio di Francesco handed a first Serie A to Nicolò Zaniolo in midfield, but otherwise named pretty much the only lineup he could have, given his squad’s dire circumstances with regard to injury.
A clash between two teams scuffling in the mid-table and performing well under expectations in the league of late usually sets up with a tense atmosphere, and this one certainly did. The Stadio Artemio Franchi was so loud that, at times, the fans drowned out the announcers; if you were watching on ESPN+, those were wonderful moments, as the commentators were perhaps the direst I’ve ever heard. How they could be so down on a match in which the forecast rain held off and Fiorentina legend Gabriel Batistuta was in attendance (as well as, uh, Paulo Sousa) was baffling.
The hosts came out firing, and it was in just the second minute that AS Roma loanee Gerson ballooned a shot over the bar with his left instead of playing in a wide-open Mirallas. Immediately afterward, the Lupi had a great chance when Cristiano Biraghi’s headed pass back to Alban Lafont wound up short of the box and the keeper had to head the ball clear. His weak attempt fell right to Lorenzo Pellegrini, who squared for Edin Džeko, but Lafont easily gathered the Bosnian’s poorly executed lob. These two quick passages show how open the match was; a nice Biraghi free kick to Giovanni Simeone on the front post didn’t really trouble Martin Olsen, but a lazy backpass from Stephan El Shaarawy nearly let Cholito reach it and square for Marco Benassi, but the striker couldnt’ quite keep the ball in after a poor first touch. At the other end, Alessandro Florenzi found Federico Fazio with a deep cross following a corner that the Argentine headed off frame despite being completely unmarked.
The exciting end-to-end action didn’t let up, as Federico Chiesa got involved at 17’, blazing past the defense to set up Cholito on the break. The striker got the ball stuck under his feet, though, and despite recovering and jinking past a defender, his left-footed effort skimmed well wide. The visitors, however, took control for the next 10 minutes, pinning the Viola in. First, a low Aleksandr Kolarov cross caused some mayhem in the area before Germán Pezzella blocked a Dzeko try. Then a perfect chip over the top from Pellegrini gave Dzeko a 1-v-1, but he spooned his attempt over the bar. Moments later, another Kolarov cross threw everyone into a tizzy before Pezzella sorted things out again. It was looking a bit worrisome at the half hour mark.
That’s when Cengiz Ünder hit a criminally bad backpass which Simeone easily intercepted. He was clean in on goal and should have dispatched his shot easily, but a woeful first touch turned it into a 50-50 between him and Olsen, leading to a collision in the area. Referee Luca Banti immediately blew for a penalty and, without consulting VAR (frankly, it probably would have been overturned), pointed to the spot. Jordan Veretout stepped up and coolly slotted it home for his third goal (all penalties) on the year, and just like that, the Viola had a rather undeserved lead.
The likely miscarriage of justice focused the Giallorossi, who resumed their pressure. Pellegrini cut past Nikola Milenković to smash a curler off the post, and Lafont somehow scrambled clear a Dzeko effort off a corner a minute later, leading to a churn in the area following a mishit Benassi clearance that ended with Fazio flattening Simeone. Lafont had to be on his toes again a couple minutes later to palm a dangerous corner out of harm’s way. Fiorentina were trying to hit on the break and had a chance just before halftime, but Kolarov cynically dragged down Gerson to end it, somehow avoiding a card. The whistle went and the Viola went in with a 1-goal lead that was, honestly, rather undeserved on the balance of play, but nobody in purple was going to complain.
Florenzi nearly leveled things half a minute after kickoff but couldn’t keep his shot on target. That seemed to wake up the Viola, who suddenly began controlling things, led by a physically impressive display from Gerson. Following a Roma corner, Veretout charged forward on the break with Mirallas and Chiesa ahead of him, but couldn’t thread a pass to either. The Romans broke forward at 51’ for the first time after Pezzella and Benassi collided, letting El Shaarawy race 40 yards untouched on the ball, but Vitor Hugo barreled across and made a brilliant sliding challenge to halt the winger cold and come away with the ball. Aside from a Zaniolo snap shot which Lafont smothered easily enough, the Viola were in command. Gerson burst forward and nearly played Simeone through, but the pass was a hair too strong. Edimilson Fernandes, brought on for Mirallas at 55’, hit a piledriver that few just past Olsen’s post, earning a thumbs up from Chiesa.
A moment later saw Fiorentina bungle their best chance of the match. Chiesa set Gerson through on the right, where the Brazilian had replaced Mirallas. His cross was blocked as he hesitated to let his support get into the box, but Chiesa tracked down the loose ball and knifed through the defense to find himself with just Olsen to beat. Instead of shooting, though, he squared for Cholito. Whether the striker was slow getting into position or whether the pass was off the mark, it wasted a perfect chance to put this one to bed, even though Gerson nearly turned the loose ball in from a very tight angle.
On the hour, Gerson played Fernandes through, but the Swiss couldn’t get his pass right to find Chiesa or Cholito. A minute later, Biraghi’s low cross forced Fazio into a desperate clearance to keep Simeone from turning it home from point blank, and Chiesa’s low curler after cutting past Florenzi from the left zipped just past the far post. Right about here, though, things got worse. Whether it was Pioli’s orders or just tired legs, Fiorentina began sitting deep and inviting pressure. While they coped admirably and rarely looked troubled—a big change from a nervous first half in which every cross looked a chance for the visitors—it’s always dangerous to defend a one-goal lead against a team with Roma’s quality.
With 15 minutes left, a lovely little layoff from Gerson sent Cholito galloping up the pitch, but Mirallas and Chiesa both went too early and took away his forward options. When Pjaca replaced Simeone, though, it was clear what the strategy was: leave Fede up top to track down clearances and run past the defenders and pack it back with everyone else. However, this approach invited too much pressure. With 5 minutes left, Kolarov belted in another low cross that Lafont came out to punch. Perhaps still stinging from a clash with Patrik Schick moments earlier—the big Czech mashed the Frenchman’s ribcage to get himself booked—the punch was weak and dropped right into Florenzi’s path; the captain hit a rather scruffy volley that bounced off the pitch and into the open net for an equalizer that Roma’s poor second half surely hadn’t earned. A late counter led by Gerson fizzled out when Chiesa dallied on the ball, and Lafont made a good stop on a Dzeko effort in stoppage time, but this one seemed certain to end with spoils shared after the second goal.
While the talking point will be the penalty (and yeah, the Viola got lucky there), the greatest point of interest to me was the second-half performance from Fiorentina. After another display early that reminded everyone of how they were against Cagliari and Torino, they were sharp after the break, controlling play and creating chances while standing strong at the back. Conceding a goal when you’re playing so well stings, but it’s encouraging that they were better.
Of course, that they were so helpless early is fully on Pioli; his charges completed just 91 passes in the first half, which is Sunday League stuff. Besides the usual sputtering in possession and attack, though, the defense looked rattled for the first 45: every time a cross came in, it created trouble. With such a big, rugged group of defenders, that shouldn’t ever be the case. The introduction of Fernandes helped for a bit, as the Viola went to a sort of fluid 4-4-2 with Gerson out wide and Chiesa up top, but the mister’s habit of trying to shut up shop too early once again resulted in a late goal conceded. This marks the third time this year when he’s tried to park the bus when leading or drawing but has conceded a goal in the last quarter hour. While a point against Roma is not, in a vacuum, anything to sneeze at, the way the game unfolded will not silence the murmurs of dissatisfaction rising in the Franchi.
Lafont: 5—We’ve noted his habit of making weak punches back into the area for months, and it finally came back to bite him. Had two very good saves and a handful of solid ones, though, so it wasn’t an entirely lost day for the teenager.
Milenković: 6.5—Let Pellegrini get around him for a shot off the post, but otherwise kept Stephan El Shaarawy and that side of the pitch completely silent, which is a good thing after a few matches in which he’s been underwhelming. Improved his distribution compared to last week too, which was heartening.
Pezzella: 7.5—A heroic performance from the captain, who time and again swept up mistakes at the back. Was the only thing keeping the sheet clean in the first half, stepping in with last ditch blocks and clearances on numerous occasions, and helped keep Dzeko very quiet.
Vitor Hugo: 7—That tackle on El Shaarawy should be framed as the Platonic ideal and hung in the Uffizi, but he was quite good otherwise as well. Kept Dzeko in his pocket and even went rumbling forward to lead a counter at one point, forcing Pellegrini into a yellow to stop him.
Biraghi: 6.5—Didn’t get forward as much today as we’re used to seeing, probably due to the threat of Ünder getting in behind. He stonewalled the ballyhooed Turk all match, though, displaying the grinta of a dude who could easily wear the armband at some point in his Viola career.
Benassi: 4.5—Most visible for two skewed clearances that handed Roma decent opportunities. Didn’t find space for his trademark bursts in behind and was barely involved. May be in danger of losing his spot to Gerson after this display.
Veretout: 6—Ragged in the first half, but much stouter in the second, when he helped boss the middle and control the tempo. Still doesn’t convince as a holding midfielder, as he’s not a ball-winner, and probably needs to be deployed a bit higher up the pitch, but his commitment to this new role is commendable.
Gerson: 7.5—Man of the match performance against his parent club. He came out with something to prove and proved it. Was immovable on the ball, storming past the likes of Steven Nzonzi time and again, and played a bunch of dangerous passes forward. When he’s in a mood like this, he’s just unstoppable.
Chiesa: 6.5—Weird game for Fede. While he produced a few incredible moments, highlighted by a brilliant turn which saw him nutmeg Florenzi and leave him for dead, he also destroyed several moves by holding the ball too long. Don’t get me wrong, he’s definitely a net positive, but this wasn’t his best performance.
Simeone: 5—It probably wasn’t a penalty, but it should have been a goal anyways. Cholito’s first touch is just terrible and his confidence looks shot. His workrate remains excellent, of course, but that’s more something you want in a midfielder or fullback than a striker.
Mirallas: 6—Had a couple of bright moments and showed a surprising capacity to track back, but didn’t do as much as we might have hoped. On the other hand, he was frequently in the right place on the break and simply didn’t get the ball or the help he needed, so you can’t judge him too harshly.
Fernandes: 5.5—Looked strong and had a tremendous shot from distance, but his passing remains a work in progress, as does his defending.
Dabo: 5—Never got into the flow of the game, although he certainly wasn’t a problem per se. Surely deserves a chance to start in the holding role soon and push Veretout a bit forward.
Pjaca: 5—Showed the willingness to take players on during his brief cameo, which was nice after a few anonymous performances, although his efforts didn’t really come to anything.