Facing a dearth of central midfielders, Stefano Pioli changed his charges’ shape from the usual 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. Maxi Olivera replaced the suspended Cristiano Biraghi at leftback, while Vincent Laurini made his first start in nearly two months at rightback. Vitor Hugo continued to start in front of Nikola Milenković. In midfield, Sebastian Cristoforo came in for injured captain Milan Badelj. In the attack, Riccardo Saponara continued to work as the trequartista, while Valentin Eysseric earned his first start since January on the left wing.
Giovanni Simeone got the hosts out to a flying start. Maxi Olivera picked up the ball very high on the left wing and swung an inviting cross into the box that evaded both Simeone and Federico Chiesa, but the Crotone defense could only clear it as far as Eysseric at the top of the box. Goalkeeper Alex Cordaz could only block the Frenchman’s venomous volley, and the rebound spilled directly to Cholito, who scrambled it back over the line for his first goal since 5 January.
The Viola weren’t going to sit back, though. 5 minutes later, Saponara led a break down the center of the pitch and fed Olivera down the left, but the Uruguayan shot weakly at Cordaz when he was all alone and probably should have cut it back in. At 22’, the Squali showed their first signs of life, bursting forward in numbers. The attack ended, though, with an off-balance Ahmed Benali trying to curl one in at Marco Sportiello’s back post, with the goalie looking as if he had it well-covered had it not fluttered wide.
12 minutes later, the Viola responded as Chiesa wiggled down the right and cut the ball back for Saponara, who’d found a pocket of space in the box. His left-footed curler, though, was straight at Cordaz, who gathered easily. While each side had a few probing attempts throughout, the half was more of a scuffle than anything else, with the Viola certainly in control but seeming to rest on their laurels for the final half hour or so.
Perhaps 10 minutes after the restart, Chiesa went burning down the right, skipped past a challenge, and fed the Cheese, who provided a lovely return ball to put Fede through. However, the defense caught up and managed to block the shot from 6 yards out. On the ensuing corner, Simeone darted to the near post and nearly redirected the ball in at the back post, but it inched just past the woodwork.
Just before the hour mark, Marco Capuano earned a second yellow and his subsequent marching orders for dragging down Chiesa as the youngster burst down the right touchline on the break. While the defender clearly didn’t think he deserved the sending-off, it was pretty clear-cut, and Walter Zenga can have no complaints.
Fede slammed the door 5 minutes later after another delicate interchange with Saponara put him through on goal from the right, and the newly-minted Italy international’s powerful finish was always going to beat Cordaz. Chiesa’s celebration, hopping the advertising boards and the barriers to celebrate in front of an adoring Curva, was yet another reminder of why we love him so much.
Now up 2-0, the Viola never really looked like conceding again, although they only intermittently hunted for a third goal. Eysseric lined one up a curler from the right after Olivera did well to get down the wing and cut it back for him, but it was always going wide. Just before time, though, Fiorentina did what they always do, which is cock up very deep in their own half. Marcello Trotta broke through cleanly and got a shot on goal, but Sportiello made a fantastic reaction save to deny him and preserve the clean sheet. Moments later, Saponara drove forward from midfield and fired a worm burner with his left that Cordaz had to sprawl to push clear. However, the most exciting thing for the Viola faithful may have been the 15 encouraging minutes that young Simone Lo Faso played in relief of Chiesa.
It was all smiles for Pioli and company at the end of this one, and with good reason. The defense looked really solid, rarely allowing anything through (with the major exception of the late brain fart from Germán Pezzella). The midfield was admittedly scrappy, but that’s hardly a surprise considering the circumstances: Cristoforo, and his replacement Bryan Dabo, are nobody’s idea of playmakers, but they battled well throughout; Jordan Veretout, though, must be very ready for Marco Benassi and Badelj to return and take some of the creative burden off his shoulders.
The real takeaways, though, are that Simeone was involved for most of the match and actually converted one of the numerous chances his non-stop running created for him. Combined with another sparkling performance from Chiesa and an imperious one from the Cheese, who pulled the strings in the final third all night, and there’s reason to think that this team may have finally started figuring out how to attack. Sure, it was against a relegation-bound side that’s conceded 52 goals this year, but there were moments of promise.
Sportiello: 7.5—Had very little to do for most of the day, but that stop on Trotta just before full time was magnificent and earns him the grade.
Laurini: 6.5—Perfectly solid. Kept Stoian and Ricci very quiet all night. Didn’t offer too much going forward, but against a side like Crotone, that’s just fine.
Vitor Hugo: 6.5—Another strong, unassuming evening from the Brazilian. While he’ll never be mistaken for an elegant sweeper, his all-action style seems to be winning Pioli over.
Pezzella: 6—Did well for most of the evening, but his slip-up would have resulted in a goal for the visitors had Sportiello not saved his bacon.
Olivera: 7—Spent the full 90 galloping up and down the left side. His constant overlapping let Eysseric drift inside and overload the midfield. Played in some decent crosses and wasn’t too bad on the back foot, either.
Cristoforo: 5—Scrapped like a maniac as per usual, but didn’t win the ball much and was typically wayward with his passing. May get a chance to redeem himself soon with Badelj hurt.
Veretout: 6—Focused more on staying in position, shielding the back four, and passing the ball up to the attackers than charging forward himself. Needs another decent passer with him to hold onto the ball and control the match; was overloaded in the middle as Cristoforo and Dabo didn’t offer anything going forward.
Chiesa: 8—Unplayable all evening. Too fast, too quick, too smart, and too talented for anyone in a white shirt to slow down. Starting to show a very promising understanding with Saponara.
Saponara: 8—Ghosted between the lines, played on the turn, and dictated play in the final third. Time and again created chances on the half-break with clever passing, and showed a surprising ability to skip past a defender when he needed to. Could finally be rounding into form.
Eysseric: 6.5—Not as involved as we might have asked, but did a good job of moving inside to overload the Crotone midfield. Hit a heck of a shot for Simeone’s goal and could have had an assist if he’d crossed rather than shot later on. Looks like a very solid squad player, but probably not a weekly starter right now.
Simeone: 7.5—Thank heavens he finally got back in the goals, even if it was an absolute gimme. Ran the defense ragged and popped up with several good chances that he didn’t miss by much. Hopefully has his swagger back and can get back to banging them in.
Dabo: 6.5—Looked better than Cristoforo. Kept his position, won the ball when it got near him, and was actually helpful in possession, always providing a passing option and recycling the ball quickly. Not exactly incisive, but exactly what was required.
Lo Faso: 6—Promising stuff. While he didn’t exactly shine, he seemed to fit right in with the big boys. Hope to see more of him soon.
Gaspar: n/a—Nowhere to be seen on the Trotta chance, but didn’t really have enough time to get a grade.