Fiorentina came into this match on a 9-match winless streak; the last time they’d tasted victory was the September 2-0 win against Atalanta. Having slipped solidly into midtable, Stefano Pioli and his players have felt the pressure, which was magnified by the absences of Jordan Veretout, Nikola Milenković, and Edimilson Fernandes through suspension. The mister opted to hand a competitive start to Christian Nørgaard at the base of midfield and Federico Ceccherini at rightback, with Kevin Mirallas slotting in on the wing following his dramatic goal against Sassuolo last week.
Empoli, on the other hand, came in on a 4-match unbeaten run and have looked like a genuine Serie A side since new boss Giuseppe Iachini took over. With their respective trajectories and the inherent unpredictability of a neighborly clash, the Derby dell’Arno was set up for a tense 90 minutes indeed, especially taking into account the close Viola ties throughout the Azzurri squad: Iachini himself wore the purple shirt for 5 years with Pioli, while a hatful of current players have also spent various lengths of time in Florence. The Viola faithful and the visiting support, by the way, unleashed some pretty solid displays during the warmups as well.
Empoli absolutely rocked Fiorentina from the start, pressing the defense very high and making the hosts look extremely uncomfortable in midfield, which meant we saw lots of aimless hoofing. The Azzurri, on the other hand, had a clear plan, which was to isolate record-signing Antonino La Gumina against Ceccherini, who had a few anxious moments. Following a neatly-whipped in Federico Chiesa cross that was inches too high for all of Mirallas, Simeone, and Marco Benassi (all of whom had been caught offside anyways), the visitors had the first chance through red-hot Francesco Caputo, who let fly from outside the box; Alban Lafont handled it easily. At 14’, Hamed Junior Traorè drove at Ceccherini and then squared to Caputo, who spun past Germán Pezzella and blasted one straight at Lafont that the keeper could only block with his sternum. Fiorentina hadn’t ventured out of their own half in 10 minutes and looked miserable.
After 18 minutes, though, that changed in a big way. Chiesa drove wiggled into space at the corner of the box and crossed to the back post, where a completely unmarked Cristiano Biraghi arrived for a bullet header into the back of the net. VAR, however, eventually ruled the goal offside; it was almost certainly the wrong decision, as only Biraghi’s arm was behind the last defender. Moments later, Mirallas drove down the right and slid in a cross that caused some chaos, eventually resulting in a Viola free kick. From that set piece, Mirallas’ cross found a completely unmarked Vitor Hugo, who borked his header from 6 yards out. Naturally, Empoli opened the scoring directly after. As the Viola defense mosied back, the visitors broke quickly down the right, and Caputo looped a cross to the back post for a wide-open Rade Krunić to sweep home from point blank.
The Viola didn’t really respond strongly. Giovanni Simeone had a weak shot after latching onto a loose ball in the box and Chiesa took a couple of ill-advised drives from distance that were miles from troubling Ivan Provedel in goal. Indeed, Empoli nearly doubled the advantage when Ceccherini played one back to Lafont, who dithered and very nearly let Caputo knick the ball before sliding it to Vitor Hugo. At 38’, Chiesa did better with a strike from outside the box that forced Provedel to sprawl to his left, but Empoli seemed much the better side until the 42nd minute, when Cholito, leading a quick break, slid a measured pass through the defense for Mirallas to hammer just under the bar for an equalizer. It was the Belgian’s second goal in as many matches as he looks to cement his place in Pioli’s lineup, and he fully deserved it following an active and sharp display.
The Viola came roaring out the gates, with a silky Mirallas touch from a Lafont punt dazzling the Empoli defense and earning a free kick. Aside from a moment 5 minutes after the restart which saw Caputo feed a completely unmarked Luca Antonelli into Lafont’s box—the veteran’s shot squiffed miles wide with nobody near him, reminding us all why he’s a defender and not a striker—Fiorentina settled in as the superior team, controlling territory and possession without generating too many chances. There was a bizarre incident just before the hour in which Simeone, leading a 3-v-2 break, simply stopped and passed the ball back to the ref, thinking he’d heard a whistle, but he redeemed himself second later by popping up unmarked at the back post to head home a inch-perfect cross from Biraghi. Perhaps a bit too amped up, Cholito celebrated by shushing the fans (we’ll discuss this in full later), but he’d fired his team into the lead; a bit of emotion can be forgiven.
Not 2 minutes later, Chiesa nearly added a third with an eye-popping overhead kick that Provedel somehow skied to block. Now with the lead, the Viola suddenly woke up, keeping the ball in their opponents’ half and working the ball into the box, repeatedly forcing their visitors into chaotic clearances and last-ditch efforts. Aside from another strange miscommunication between Gerson and Chiesa which saw the former pass to the latter, who’d turned his back and was walking away, this suddenly looked like the Fiorentina from the start of the season. Mirallas in particular was sharp, finding space for himself to work and bringing his mates into the game as well.
With just 15 minutes left, though, Empoli nearly equalized. La Gumina was first to a cross from the left and walloped a low shot on frame from 6 yards out, turning to celebrate before he realized that Lafont had somehow gotten low enough to palm it away. That marvelous save proved crucial, as substitute Bryan Dabo added a third just 2 minutes later with a tremendous shot from distance that scorched along the turf to beat Provedel. Now with a 2-goal lead, the Viola seemed comfortable, but kept attacking. Valentin Eysseric found a streaking Biraghi at 81’, and the fullback’s low cross was centimeters ahead of Simeone; whether the pass or the run was mistimed is tough to say. Chiesa had a weak shot shortly after and Pezzella brickwalled Caputo, but it was mostly rote penalty box defense from the Viola from there on out with the occasional raid forward; Cholito barely missed another low Biraghi cross at 90’, Chiesa tried yet another strike from distance that Provedel easily collected, and Dabo rather misplayed a late break to an offside Simeone, but there wasn’t any question that Fiorentina deserved all three points when the whistle blew.
Yikes. That was a huge relief. The win (did we mention it’s the first since THE LAST DAY OF SEPTEMBER?) rockets Fiorentina into 9th place with 22 points. They’re now just 2 points shy of the Europa league places, and 4 behind AC Milan for the final Champions League spot. Obviously, one win from ten is a bit early to pop the champagne, but this team looked really good.
A lot of that is on the subs. While Ceccherini was a bit up and down, Nørgaard brought a steady and disciplined presence in front of the defense that we haven’t seen since Milan Badelj left town and Mirallas was simply brilliant. The Belgian has surely established himself as a starter now and, if he keeps this up, will be an absolute no-brainer signing at season’s end. Strong showings from Nørgaard and Dabo could well push Veretout out of the holding role as well, which could help unlock the attack even more. And, perhaps most exciting of all, Simeone’s scored in two straight games and looks to have his confidence back, which means maybe the tridente will show some more bite. Again, it’s a lot to extrapolate from one match against a midtable opponent, but these were the first signs of life we’ve seen in months.
Lafont: 7—He treated us to the full Alban experience in this one. His distribution was puzzling at times and he nearly gave away the cheapest goal you’ll ever see by dithering on the ball with Caputo bearing down on him, but was much better claiming crosses than we’ve see from him thus far and made that save to keep the lead.
Ceccherini: 6—Started slowly, losing out to La Gumina in the early stages and making some poor passes forward (particularly long straight ones for Chiesa) and backwards (that Lafont moment was off his pass with a striker too near the goal). Steadied himself after the half, though, and looked quite solid by the end.
Pezzella: 6.5—A bit more casual at times than we’re used to seeing from the captain. Lost Caputo once or twice and let his defense get disorganized at times, particularly on the goal. Also stepped up in possession a few times when he really shouldn’t have, leading to spaces at the back that Empoli attacked. Righted the ship nicely, though, and made a highlight stop on Caputo late on.
Vitor Hugo: 6.5—Should have scored. That was simply a terrible miss. Was solid enough at the back, sticking tight to La Gumina in particular in the second half, and wasn’t exposed much. Might have been at fault for the goal as he probably should have covered the back post better, but still, it was a quietly effective night for the big Brazilian. Except for that miss. Gah.
Biraghi: 7.5—Got an assist, could have had 2 more, and only had a goal ruled out by a phantom offside. Showed excellent energy throughout. Shut down his wing except for the goal, and that was more due to miscommunication as he’d been on the right wing for a free kick and never could have gotten back into position in time. Italy’s leftback.
Benassi: 6.5—The most involved we’ve seen Marco in months. Rumbled around, looked for the ball, connected some passes, and helped back on defense. More than anything, though, wasn’t purely a passenger.
Nørgaard: 6.5—He’s not Badelj, but he did a decent impression. Always in the right spot to offer a simple option. Kept his distribution tidy, eschewing the killer pass in favor of rolling the ball to the feet of a teammate in space. Should improve defensively as he gets more acquainted with his teammates. Looked a sight better than Fernandes, at the very least.
Gerson: 6—A bit quiet from the Brazilian. Made some trademark bruising runs through the midfield but never really connected with anyone. Did have a brilliant disguised chip to Benassi at one point, but that was about it.
Mirallas: 8—Man of the match. Drove the ball forward at all times, won free kicks, played clever crosses and through balls, and constantly threatened in behind. The goal was brilliantly taken, and he simply seemed to be out-thinking everyone else on the pitch. Has to start from here on out.
Simeone: 7.5—A goal and an assist and a whole new Cholito. Showcased his usual workrate and did well to attack the ball in the box instead of just waiting for it to arrive, which made a big difference. Still let down by his first touch at times and still prone to the odd boneheaded decision, but looked to be on the same page as Mirallas and Biraghi especially. Maybe this will kickstart his season.
Chiesa: 6.5—Tried to do too much and showed a rather suspect attitude at times, with the Gerson incident the most obvious shortcoming. Needs to stop taking long shots and learn some patience. Even so, played a couple of excellent crosses, took 2 very good shots, and occasionally dusted everyone near him. He’s still the future.
Dabo: 7—Did not know he had goals like that in him. Gracious. Still a bit loose as a passer, but his physical presence is colossal.
Eysseric: 6—Combined neatly and looked thoughtful on the break. May have passed up Marko Pjaca in the pecking order, adding to the Croatian’s misery in Florence, and that could keep the Frenchman around rather than seeing him sold over the winter.
Hancko: n/a—2 minutes of stoppage time to remind everyone that he exists, but hey, he’s still a kid getting Serie A minutes.