Stefano Pioli made the rather risky decision of starting all 3 of his centerbacks (Hristo Stoichov, who’s made the bench a few times this year, is on international duty) in a 4-3-3 with Nikola Milenković at rightback. The midfield was as expected. In attack, Riccardo Saponara returned to the trequartista role in which he’s clearly most comfortable, while Giovanni Simeone worked as the prima punta and Federico Chiesa stayed on the right. Overall, it was something between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-3-1-2, but rather lopsided, with the attacking width on the left coming from Cristiano Biraghi bursts from deep and Jordan Veretout drifting wide.
For Torino, Walter Mazzari opted to leave ex-Viola attacker Adem Ljajić on the bench, lining up with Iago Falque and Alex Berenguer on the wings. Fiorentina didn’t go unrepresented in the Granata lineup, though, as former Gigliati defenders Emiliano Moretti and Lorenzo de Silvestri both got the nod. Also, it’s worth pointing out the wonderful displays throughout the match from the Torino fans, who managed the delicate balance of both protesting their ownership and honoring Davide Astori with a multitude of banners and songs.
Fiorentina looked to establish dominance immediately, pressing their hosts furiously and looking to win possession whenever possible, leaving Torino breathless and tentative. The pressure nearly paid dividends in the 7th minute, as the Viola won the ball in their opponent’s half and immediately played it through. Cholito ran it down in the area, where a last-ditch Moretti tackle knocked the ball out to touch. Referee Claudio Gavillucci wanted a second look to ensure there wasn’t a penalty, so he spent 3 minutes checking, although Simeone’s reaction clearly indicated it was a clean, which conclusion the official eventually reached.
A minute later, some wonderful interplay between Saponara and Veretout unleashed Chiesa down the right wing, and the youngster cleverly cut the ball back to Marco Benassi. Perhaps anxious about scoring on his old team, the midfielder eschewed an excellent shooting chance and squared to Biraghi, who blasted a shot that sliced well wide. However, another lengthy VAR consultation proved that the ball had come of de Silvestri’s arm, and Gavillucci awarded the spot kick. Veretout stepped up and fired a low, hard shot to the right, but it was far too close to Salvatore Sirigu, who palmed it away to preserve the scoreless draw.
The Viola controlled the remainder of the half, creating a couple of half-chances that never really threatened Sirigu’s goal while rarely allowing the Granata past midfield. Saponara in particular was excellent, dropping deep and adding a fluidity to the possession play that’s been missing all year, as well the occasional probing through ball to keep the defense on its toes. The Fiorentina backline, in contrast, allowed just 2 shots: a hopeful effort from de Silvestri, cutting inside onto his left from outside the box, and a soft header from Nicolas N’Koulou on a corner that Marco Sportiello easily reached. When the halftime whistle went, it was the visitors who were vastly ahead in terms of chances created and quality of play, but the scores remained level.
Pioli’s charges came out with renewed vigor, displaying even more dominance from the start of the period. There were a handful of nice moves and half-chances in the opening minutes, none closer than a Chiesa cross for Vitor Hugo, who was completely unmarked in the Torino box following a corner, but Fede put a bit too much on it and it whipped just over the Brazilian’s noggin.
Just before the hour mark, Veretout went from zero to hero. The Frenchman read the play beautifully as Torino swung the ball across the back, and roared forward to dispossess N’Koulou. A couple touches later and the ex-Aston Villa man finished with a lovely curler past Sirigu which the custodian never could have stopped. The visitors had the lead, the momentum, and everything seemed rosy.
Fiorentina didn’t let up, and Biraghi tried a cross a few minutes later that evaded everyone in the area and bounced right in front of Sirigu, who was so wrongfooted he could only parry it, but nobody was ready to poke it home. However, the Granata finally began to grow into the match at this point, moving forward and creating a few chances from set pieces in a match that increasingly opened up; Pioli clearly needed to change something to restamp his team’s authority on proceedings.
Instead, he brought on Cyril Théréau for Saponara in a head-scratching switch that stymied the ball movement and offered little pace for a counter as Torino threw numbers forward. While the Viola did craft a few more opportunities (no thanks to Théréau, who lost the ball every time he touched it), it was the hosts who scored next. In the 85th minute, Ljajić (of course) swung a free kick into the area from the left. Belotti darted through traffic to lose his marker. He slipped right past Théréau, who didn’t even pretend to make an effort to slow him down, and then hit a fantastic volley past Sportiello to equalize the match, which was well on its way to another heartbreak for Fiorentina.
Milan Badelj smoked an effort from outside the box that was just wide, and the Viola pushed Torino into their own box for the remainder of the match. In stoppage time, they finally got a break: Cristian Ansaldi clearly handled a cross from Biraghi, and Gavillucci eventually stopped play to inspect VAR for the third time in the match (honestly, this one was so obvious he should have just given it immediately, but whatever). Chiesa set the ball on the spot, but then Théréau (of course) stepped up and fired home to restore the lead. It was a good penalty and sums up what Cyril’s all about. The visitors easily held on for the remaining few minutes and walked off the pitch with 3 points.
The win—Fiorentina’s third in a row—means they stay at 9th in the table, but puts them just 3 points out of the final Europa League spot. On more emotional terms, it’s a hard fought victory in the first away match since Astori died, which has to mean more to the players than we can understand.
It’s also provided a way forward for the rest of the year, albeit a tenuous one. This new shape seems to be working well, as Saponara’s intelligent positioning and excellent passing move the ball around much more quickly than we’re used to this year. His central positioning also solidifies the midfield, making Fiorentina very difficult to play through, and provides the flexibility for the midfielders to drop into the backline when necessary, secure in the knowledge that the numbers will keep the middle from being overrun.
Up top, though, this team remains rather clumsy. Simeone and Chiesa consistently make poor choices on the ball, which kills counter attacks that shouldn’t die so easily. Saponara is part of the problem too, as his deeper positioning means more through balls, sure, but also a man less in support, leading to a lot of solo runs from the Viola attackers that come to nothing. However, Pioli’s first priority was always building a solid platform on which to base an attack, and he’s really starting to get there now. If he can get his team in the goals next year, Fiorentina could be a sneaky-good group.
Sportiello: 6—Didn’t have an awful lot to do today. The goal was certainly not his fault. Looked a bit nervous with the ball at his feet once or twice, but was, for the most part, entirely adequate.
Milenković: 6.5—Didn’t let anything past him on the right, and even motored forward at one point to win a free kick in shooting range. Dude looks more like the real deal every day, although it’d be nice to see him in the middle, which is certainly his more natural position.
Pezzella: 6—Not as comfortable as the left centerback, although that may change with time. Seemed to miss Astori’s assured presence sweeping up behind him, and had some nervy moments in possession.
Vitor Hugo: 6.5—Put in an all-action performance at the back, battling with Belotti and tracking the odd midfield runner quite well. Ran down a couple of loose balls to kick start attacks, too. Still not super useful with the ball at his feet, but clearly starting to settle in.
Biraghi: 7.5—Crucial today. Won two penalties, motored forward to provide width on the left, fired in some really good crosses, and got back pretty well on defense. Coping with the entirety of the flank is an enormous responsibility, and Cristiano rose to it magnificently.
Benassi: 5.5—Lots of hustle and a few nice moments, but we’re still waiting for everything to click for him. He hasn’t been terrible, but it’s hard not to think that his price tag is the only thing keeping him in the lineup right now.
Badelj: 7.5—Put on a clinic, showing exactly how a holding midfielder should play. Always in space to pick up possession from the defenders, kept the ball rolling all over the grass, broke up play, and even got forward on occasion. Had a brilliant tackle on Nutella Boy in the box as a highlight.
Veretout: 7—After missing the penalty, seemed to lose his rhythm a little bit, but clearly got it back. Did well to get wide on the left a couple of times, and got stuck in on defense. The goal was pure class, but the missed penalty surely wasn’t.
Saponara: 7—Pulled all the strings out there today. Found space between the lines, then quickly moved the ball into dangerous positions. Also dropped deep when necessary and hit a few lovely long balls over and through the defense. A nice reminder that when he’s healthy and used as a trequartista, he’s a very good player.
Chiesa: 5—Other than his cutback for Benassi in the opening moments, this was a pretty forgettable performance. Never found space to work in, put his head down when he should have looked up, and didn’t seem to have his usual touch on the ball. It’s fine. He’s still a kid, and we’re not worried about him. All part of growing up.
Simeone: 5—Involved early, but faded into the background. It’s starting to feel like the problem isn’t a lack of service into the box for him, but rather that he’s not sure what to do when he sees the ball coming. Hopefully it’s just growing pains, but he needs to show some progress soon.
Falcinelli: 5—Honestly, pretty anonymous from Diego. Ran around a lot, but didn’t have anything to show for it.
Théréau: 5.5—He took the penalty brilliantly, but also showed one of the most absurd defensive “efforts” on Belotti’s goal. Also lost the ball every time he touched it, including on a couple of very promising breaks. A bit of a cypher.