Fiorentina, as you may have heard, came into this one with a 6-match winning streak. However, SPAL had gone 6 matches without a loss, which included keeping a clean sheet against Juventus. Stefano Pioli was forced into a last-minute change when Vincent Laurini had to go to the hospital to be with his girlfriend as she gave birth (both girlfriend and son Diego are doing fine), so Nikola Milenković stepped in. Otherwise, the Viola XI was as expected.
Fiorentina came out strong, as might be expected from them in front of a raucous crowd at the Artemio Franchi. Riccardo Saponara was involved early, first snapping a shot from inside the area after a Cholito layoff that Meret had to punch over, then latching onto a Jordan Veretout cross and spooning his shot high and wide, then floating a free kick just too far for Milenković at the far post, then wriggling through three defenders to crack a shot that Alex Meret easily saved. The early drama was in front of the other goal, however, as referee Daniele Orsato called for a penalty after SPAL captain and former Fiorentina defender Felipe went down in the box following a challenge from Vitor Hugo. After 3 minutes of chatting, Orsato eventually checked with VAR, and 5 seconds later returned to deny the spot kick. It was obviously the correct decision, as Felipe had certainly made the most of minimal contact.
The Viola nearly opened the scoring from the restart, as Federico Chiesa made a great run down the right, latched onto a through ball, and squared from the byline to an onrushing Giovanni Simeone. Cholito somehow neglected to fire the ball into the open net from 3 yards out. With the wind rather out of their sails, the Viola retreated for the next 20 minutes, allowing SPAL to turn the match into a cluttered midfield affair, mostly notable for the kicking that Saponara received.
The Gigliati came back to life 10 minutes before the break, though, and it was that man Chiesa who was the architect. First, he beat a couple of defenders before switching the ball to Cristiano Biraghi, who’d slipped into the area and blasted a shot from 8 yards out which Meret did well to save. 4 minutes later, Chiesa won possession high up the pitch, exchanged a pass with the Cheese, and lanced a fantastic shot into the top corner which a full-stretch Meret somehow punched clear. A minute after that, Chiesa again got loose down the right and hit a low cross across the face of goal which, once again, Cholito somehow conspired to skew wide. Then, just before the half, Biraghi swung a free kick into the area and Milenković got a free header, but couldn’t keep the ball down when he really should have put it away. The whistle blew thrice, and somehow Fiorentina weren’t already up 3-0.
The second half started rather sluggishly, with neither team able to ake an impact in the final third. That nearly changed just before the hour mark, when Manuel Lazzari played a lovely ball through the Viola defense for Mirko Antenucci, who squared it across after Marco Sportiello cut off his shooting angle. The ball rolled slowly across the face of the open goal, begging for someone in a striped shirt to tap it home, before Milenković cleared it.
Pioli had seen enough and removed Simeone and Saponara for Diego Falcinelli and Valentin Eysseric at 67 minutes. The latter nearly made an instant impact, firing a shot from the right that took a deflection and nearly settled inside the far post, but rolled just a bit wide, and Germán Pezzella headed just over from the ensuing corner. Two minutes later, Eysseric made a nice run into the box but pulled his low shot inches wide of the far post. A minute after that, Chiesa had another powerful go from the top of the box, but it fizzed just past Meret’s post.
At 72’, Lazzari again gave the visitors a gilt-edged chance to score, crossing to an unmarked Mattia Vitale, but the Juventus loanee couldn’t get the ball untangled from under his feet and borked the chance. Five minutes later, Chiesa broke down the right and slipped a cross into Falcinelli, who went over in the area and accidentally deflected the ball to Biraghi on the back post; the wingback’s shot, however, was well over the crossbar from 8 yards out. With 10 minutes left, Pioli brought on Gil Dias for Biraghi, going all-out attack and setting up what looked to be a tense finish.
At 83’, though, Federico Viviani smacked a free kick on target that Sportiello blocked into the path of Felipe, who couldn’t sort out his shooting boots and poked it well wide. Two minutes later, Dias beat a defender and came roaring down the pitch and got himself one-on-one with Meret, but couldn’t beat the Udinese loanee. Right at 90 minutes, Dias nearly made himself a hero, but his curled shot was a whisker wide of the post. Pezzella hit a decent ball from the top of the box in stoppage time that zipped over the bar, and that was it. SPAL had somehow split the points with the hosts, despite Fiorentina’s myriad opportunities.
Fiorentina took 24 shots (6 on target), had 64% of possession, won 8 corners, and allowed just a single shot on frame. It really was just the finishing that let this team down: Simeone, Biraghi, Saponara, Chiesa, Milenković, and Dias all should have scored; had any of them done so, we’d be talking about how Fiorentina ground out 3 points against a relegation team in just the way that top teams do when they have off games.
You really can’t fault Pioli for this one, either, as his side created chances throughout. While Falcinelli is always distressing to see in a purple shirt (especially since this is the sort of match that Khouma Babacar used to win for us in the final minutes), Eysseric had a few nice moments, and Dias should have notched twice. With all due respect to SPAL, who worked hard and executed ex-Viola Primavera mister Leonard Semplici’s instructions perfectly, this was what my uncle calls kharmic whiplash, a sort of settling of universal imbalances after stealing 3 points on the road against AS Roma in a match that the Viola, quite frankly, had no business winning. However, Fiorentina are still unbeaten in 8, and none of the other Europa League challengers added points, so the table basically remains unchanged.
Sportiello—6: Not much to do, although he spilled a tricky but catchable free kick right into Felipe’s path. Did well to close the angle on Antenucci and force the veteran striker to square the ball, rather than shooting it.
Milenković—6.5: Involved in some early attacking play and dominated his side of defense, not allowing SPAL to build anything from that flank. Should have scored on a free header, but it’s hard to fault the 20-year-old too much for not opening his Fiorentina account.
Vitor Hugo—6.5: Had a nervous moment on the PK that was eventually denied, but was otherwise competent and assured at the back.
Pezzella—5.5: Did well defensively and had a couple of nice tries on goal, but gave the ball away cheaply three times, and each led to a dangerous counter. Has to stay focused in possession, because a better opponent cold have made those mistakes very costly indeed.
Biraghi—4.5: Had trouble keeping up with Lazzari, who was SPAL’s only spark in attack, but his brief to get forward was probably as much at fault as his poor defense. Had two sterling opportunities to score and didn’t finish either. He was due for a poor match at some point, though, as he’s been fantastic for the past month and a half.
Benassi—5: Invisible. Didn’t get on the ball much and didn’t get forward into the box. This is the sort of match in which his bustling midfield presence and long-range shooting could have dominated, but he was a bit of a passenger for 90 minutes.
Dabo—6.5: Did he do Dabo stuff? Dude, you know it. Won the ball in the air and in the tackle, swept up mistakes by his midfield colleagues, kept the ball nicely, and always made himself an option for the defenders. Not exactly an incisive passer, but he shouldn’t need to be.
Veretout—5: Seemed a step behind the action today. Aside from his early ball in for Saponara, didn’t display the creative passing we expect from him, and had a couple of truly atrocious mistakes on counters that cost his team a chance to break at goal. Probably just a blip.
Chiesa—7.5: Had the beating of his man all afternoon. More importantly, his decision-making was excellent; the two balls across to Simeone were perfect. That Cholito missed them is a cause for concern, as Fede may decide to go those alone now. Nevertheless, this was a dominant performance from the Italian international and a portent of things to come.
Simeone—3: Pretty much any striker in the world would have buried both chances that he had. Even Nacho effing Castillo or el Tanque Silva would have scored one.
Saponara—5.5: Was a force early on, but faded out of the match, possibly due to the kicking he endured. After the first 20 minutes, he completely vanished. That’s part of the nature of his position, though; very few number 10s can dominate every single match.
Eysseric—6: Brought a good change of pace and forged a couple of decent chances. This may be the level at which he excels.
Falcinelli—5: Accidentally set up Biraghi for a golden opportunity, but it’s hard to credit a mistake. Didn’t do diddly otherwise.
Dias—5: Came so close to being the hero, but couldn’t quite pull it off. Seems like a perfect epitaph for his time in Florence.