Stefano Pioli handed Sebastian Cristoforo his first start of the season in relief of Milan Badelj (suspended), while Vitor Hugo made a rare appearance in place of Nikola Milenković (suspended). Further forward, Diego Falcinelli also got the nod alongside Giovanni Simeone, leading to a shape that most often looked like a 3-5-2, although Federico Chiesa, the nominal right wingback, was given permission to swap wings at his whim.
On the other side, Rolando Maran was without Valter Birsa and Emanuele Giaccherini, far and away the two most creative players in the side and the top candidates to slot in as the playmaker in the Donkeys’ 4-3-1-2. We could all predict, then, that he’d rely on keeping his team compact and hope to threaten from set pieces, as the odds of a magical moment in open play were vanishingly small without his trequartistas.
Fiorentina came out with their hair on fire, pinning the Gialloblu way into their own half and carving out a few chances. Cristiano Biraghi motored forward and smashed a rocket that forced Stefano Sorrentino into a sprawling save at 4’, and Germán Pezzella got his head to the ensuing corner, although he couldn’t get it on target. 2 minutes later, though, the Viola worked the ball high up the pitch on the right. Chiesa cut back and squared it across the top of the box to Davide Astori, who’d ventured way up, and the captain squared it again for an onrushing Biraghi, whose first time shot nearly tore through the net as it fizzed into the top corner, leaving Sorrentino with no chance. It was Biraghi’s first Fiorentina goal, and it came on the same day as his 100th appearance in Serie A. The defender’s delight was palpable, and he couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the match.
Falcinelli had a golden opportunity to double the lead just 4 minutes later after Cholito latched onto a ball over the top, drew two defenders in the box, and laid it off, but the ex-Crotone man’s shot was way off target, even with nobody near him. That was the last good chance until the 40th minute, when a Jordan Veretout found Astori on the near post from a corner, but the captain headed over when he should have done better.
The rest of the half was a bit of a slog. The Viola won a succession of corners with their non-stop pressure and Chievo were shockingly incapable of clearing their lines and generating anything that remotely resembled an attack; they didn’t manage a shot until 39th minute, and that was a skewed volley from Manuel Pucciarelli off a corner that went nowhere near Marco Sportiello’s goal. The Gigliati, for their part, bustled about furiously, but didn’t have the creativity in the side to build many chances. Veretout and Marco Benassi put in gritty performances, but the absence of Badelj was palpable as the hosts lacked any stability in their passing through the middle. While Cristoforo was a dynamo defensively, he just doesn’t offer much going forward, and it showed. Chiesa was the only attacker who caused the defense any real problems, going on a couple of trademark slaloms down the wings, but the end product never quite arrived.
Just 3 minutes after the restart, Biraghi swung in a tempting free kick from deep on the left wing that Falcinelli rose to head, but couldn’t direct on frame due to some tough marking. But things started to fall apart after that. Benassi hit a terrible pass backwards that Lucas Castro picked off and fed to Riccardo Meggiorini, but the striker was slightly offside and fired just wide anyways. Moments later, Roberto Inglese also strayed offside to kill another promising Chievo counter. The Viola were clearly running out of ideas and losing steam, allowing the visitors to adjust and fight their way back into the game.
55 minutes in, Benassi headed home from a Simeone flick on off a corner, but was correctly flagged for offside. Then at the hour mark, Ivan Radovanović blasted a low shot through traffic following a corner that Sportiello alertly pushed wide of the post. A couple of minutes later, Veretout had a pop from distance that Sorrentino easily gathered. The game was becoming a series of breaks either way, with neither midfield willing or able to control the proceedings.
As the match wore on, though, it became clear that the non-stop Viola pressure had exhausted the team, and Chievo began pushing forward. They lacked the quality to control things, though, so it remained a back-and-forth affair. First, at 66’, Cristoforo won the ball in midfield and threaded a pass through to Veretout, who galloped forward with Simeone and Falcinelli on a 3-v-2 break. The Frenchman laid it off to the latter, but Diego once again bottled a magnificent opportunity, shooting way off frame with his left. Then Castro got his head to a cross in the 69th minute that Sportiello anticipated well. 5 minutes later, Simeone launched himself for a diving header that Sorrentino miraculously saved. A bad Vitor Hugo clearance a few minutes later nearly gifted the visitors a chance, but they couldn’t put anything together. Substitute Bryan Dabo did even worse 2 minutes later when he slid to clear a low cross at the front post, but let it through his legs instead, forcing Sportiello into an impressive reflex save.
Veretout had a chance to put it to bed 2 minutes after that, but his shot was straight at Sorrentino. There was a bit of late drama, too, as Meggiorini came in late and from behind on Chiesa after the youngster had already beat three defenders and was accelerating into space. Only the yellow card came out, rather than the red, much to Pioli and Astori’s dismay. Chiesa tried to continue, but the mister brought on Gil Dias shortly after. Falcinelli also suffered a knock and so we saw Cyril Théréau. The substitutes nearly combined for a goal moments from full time, with Théréau backheeling a ball into the path of Dias cutting inside onto his stronger left, but Sorrentino once again proved equal to a strong effort. Chievo spent most of the 5 minutes of stoppage camped out in the Gigliati box, but to no avail; while Sergio Pelissier went down under contact in the area, it was rightly waved off, and Fiorentina hung on for all 3 points.
Pioli did well to instruct his charges to pressure high up the pitch in the first half. Without the creativity of Birsa or Giaccherini, he understood that the Flying Donkeys would struggle to create chances in open play and therefore ordered a high line and all-out pressing in the middle and from the strikers. It created several chances and, just as importantly, squeezed the visitors out of the match.
The second half wasn’t as good. As the players tired and were less able to press, holes opened in the defense, which began sitting deeper, and in turn opened space between the lines for Chievo to use on the break. This, of course, would have been the right time for some substitutes, but Dabo didn’t enter until 70’, and the other two subs came at 88’ and only because of injury. Removing Falcinelli for Valentin Eysseric or Riccardo Saponara would have offered some better ball retention; Bruno Gaspar or Vincent Laurini would have helped secure the right flank. Once again, Pioli got his tactics right from the start and energized his team well, but didn’t adjust as the match progressed.
Sportiello—7: Made a couple of fine stops, particularly on Dabo’s mistake and on Castro’s header, through his excellent positioning and anticipation. Had some trouble with his clearances in the second half, but that was probably due to the fierce wind more than anything else. Reasserted himself as the number one.
Pezzella—6.5: Coped better in space than expected and dominated in the air. Still not a great passer, but didn’t cough up possession in any bad places. Definitely more of a rugged stopper than a cultured sweeper.
Vitor Hugo—6: Struggled a bit in space, misplaced a pass or three, and messed up a clearance that a more dangerous opponent could have easily capitalized on. That said, he was fairly competent sweeping up the back. A useful player, but maybe not for €8 million.
Astori—7: Generally assured at the back and popped up for the assist. Should have gotten his header on frame. Came up big in the box at the end. Passing was a bit ragged, but the wind was the biggest culprit.
Chiesa—7.5: Made a number of fantastic runs to stretch the defense, beat his man non-stop, and even created a few chances. Still had a couple of selfish moments, but was generally more willing to work with his teammates this time out.
Benassi—5.5: Had a chance to establish himself as a key member of the squad, but couldn’t control the match in Badelj’s absence. Bustled around and tackled as usual, but he really needed to step up in the middle and didn’t.
Cristoforo—8: Won the ball 12 times and buzzed around the middle like a man possessed. Still not a reliable passer, but is the perfect complement to a more creative passer in the middle. Shame he’s a Pradè guy, because maybe he’s finally got his full confidence and fitness back; he sure looked like a lite version of N’Golo Kante out there.
Veretout—6: Should have scored and should have had an assist or two, but it didn’t work out that way. More importantly, did a lot of grinding in the middle when the match needed some fantasia in that zone. Not as anonymous as Benassi, but not that much better, either.
Biraghi—8: Lord almighty, what a strike for his debut goal. The rest of his game was quite tidy, too. He motored up and down tirelessly as we’ve come to expect, swinging in a few nice crosses and rarely getting beaten in defense. Deserves his call up to the Azzurri for performances like this.
Simeone—6: Looked much more active in the first half with another striker playing close to him and linked up well with his partner. Like everyone else, flagged a bit in the second half. Only denied a goal by a marvelous save, but it’s now 6 games in a row without a goal for Cholito. That’s not a good look for a striker. Also got one of the dumbest yellow cards imaginable for impeding Sorrentino as the keeper ran out to put the ball back in play.
Falcinelli—4: Had 2 gilt-edged chances to score and badly fluffed both of them, which is not exactly a promising debut start. Showed a decent work rate and moved around pretty well, but definitely not a clinical finisher.
Dabo—4: Seems to be more of a disciplined holding midfielder who stays central in front of the defense than Cristoforo, who runs non-stop around the pitch. The missed clearance nearly gifted Chievo a goal, which wasn’t a good look.
Dias—n/a: Almost scored at the end, but wasn’t out there long enough to assess.
Théréau—n/a: Almost assisted Dias at the end, but wasn’t out there long enough to assess.