Things were not looking good for Fiorentina before kick off due to the absence Federico Chiesa (suspension) and Milan Badelj (knee). Light his two best players on the year, you might have forgiven Stefano Pioli for punting on this one, but he ran out an interesting lineup with a surprise start handed to Valentin Eysseric on the left wing.
Eusebio di Francesco had his own roster problems, as winger Cengiz Ünder was injured, midfielder Radja Nainggolan was fit but just barely, and a host of regular starters—Daniele de Rossi, Aleksandar Kolarov, Diego Perotti, Alessandro Florenzi—started from the bench due to fatigue from the Champions League clash with Barcelona or to preserve their legs for the return fixture on Tuesday.
As expected, AS Roma came out energetically and pinned their visitors back early, shifting the ball around midfield and probing for creases in the defense. Fiorentina managed to move forward when Juan Jesus fouled Giovanni Simeone on the right side of the box about 25 yards out. Eysseric swung it into the box and it popped out to Riccardo Saponara on the back post. The Cheese took a moment, settled himself, and cut the ball back to Marco Benassi, who passed it into the back of the net with his left through a thicket of legs, handing the visitors an astounding lead after just 7 minutes.
The goal clearly infuriated the Giallorossi, who pinned back their ears and stormed forward. Within 5 minutes of the goal, Kevin Strootman had a drive which Marco Sportiello tipped over, Kostas Manolas missed a header from the ensuing corner, Edin Džeko pinged a shot off the right post (which he probably should have put away), and Stephan El Shaarawy shot right at Sportiello and then wide of the post. The Viola, meanwhile, rarely emerged from their own 18-yard box. Dzeko had another pop from point blank at 26’, but Sporty was again equal to the task and beat it away.
The Romans had everyone pushed forward, confident of finding an equalizer via their suffocating pressure, but there’s always a risk to that approach and, in the 38th minute, the Gigliati exposed it. Benassi pounced on a loose ball in the Giallorossi half (the first time Fiorentina had seen the ball on that side of midfield in ages) and squared it to Saponara. The Cheese laid it off to Simeone, who bulldozed his way between Bruno Peres and Manolas—a full 20 yards—before driving the ball past Alisson and into the far corner. It gave the visitors a simply unfathomable 0-2 lead, and the Lupi seemed a bit shaken up for the remainder of the half.
The hosts un-shook themselves pretty much immediately after the restart. The introduction of extra striker Patrik Schick gave them a big, penalty box option up front, but it was his partner Dzeko who came racing out the gates, forcing a big save from Sportiello again about 20 seconds after the restart. The Viola defense switched back on after that, though, and made some desperate last-ditch efforts, with Germán Pezzella and Vitor Hugo courageously throwing their bodies in the way of everything. Shick got loose for a header, and Dzeko had another couple of hits, but it was 10 minutes after the half that Sportiello pulled off a miracle save on Nainggolan, who’d been played through by Schick and had a free chance on goal.
Even then, though, Roma kept pushing. At 68’, Schick rose well to meet an Alessandro Florenzi corner but couldn’t keep his header down. 2 minutes later, Dzeko missed a header of his own. 5 minutes after that, Schick did better, meeting a cross from the left with a glancing header that left Sportiello frozen, but pinged back out off the crossbar before the Laurini cleared it out for a corner. And from that corner, Federico Fazio hit a bullet header that Sportiello barely tipped onto the crossbar and thence out of play.
With the introduction of Gil Dias, Viola fans hoped that the Portuguese attacker’s pace on the break might provide another outlet in attack, and at 79’, it looked likely to pay off as the winger got the ball on the left with one defender to stop him and Simeone. Much to our dismay, though, he got the ball stuck under his feet and couldn’t curl it behind to give Cholito a 1-v-1. A minute later, Dias again miscontrolled a simple ball to kill another promising break. Roma were looking a bit nervous, though, and at 81’, Fazio lost the ball in the exact middle of the pitch. As Cholito motored forward to latch onto it, Alisson came flying out and hit a sliding clearance on the edge of the circle to keep the Argentine from walking it into the net, but he also caught Simeone rather badly; the ref decided the goalie got the ball first and didn’t take action, but it was about 3 millimeters from a shockingly bad tackle and red card.
Things got a bit chippy at the end, with Juan Jesus and Peres both going in the book for yapping at the ref, and there were a couple of incidents in which the handbags came out as well, but by the 80th minute, you could tell that Roma knew they’d lost. They kept the pressure on and pinned Fiorentina all the way back, but by then the Viola defense knew they had the win, and after 5 minutes of stoppage, three blasts on the whistle confirmed the massive upset.
This was a historic victory. The 6 wins on the trot equals the club’s record, set in 1960 (only 1 goal conceded over this stretch, by the way). The win at the Olimpico is the first since 2012 and just the second since 1971 in Serie A. The defense has allowed 4 goals in the past 2 months. Simeone’s now netted in 3 matches in a row and is into double digits on the season. And it all happened without Chiesa and Badelj.
Look, it wasn’t quite a tactical masterclass from Pioli. 3 shots in the entire match is nothing to celebrate. Roma certainly had a plethora of chances, and only some heroics from Sporty kept the clean sheet, but you have to hand it to the bald mister: he’s got the lads playing with a belief and an intensity we haven’t seen in a long time, and he’s gotten his defense pretty well organized even despite the obvious absence in that department. Sure, it’s still scrappy and scruffy and not the symphonic elegance we want, but wins are wins. With a couple more quality pieces in attack, this team could make some serious noise next year.
Oh, and speaking of next year, let’s have a look at the table, shall we? The Gigliati are now in sole possession of 7th place after both Atalanta and Sampdoria were held to draws today. That would put them into the Europa League playoffs, which was probably the most optimistic outcome for the season when we were looking at it last summer. Of course, with 3 of the remaining 7 matches coming against Lazio, against Napoli, and at AC Milan, there’s no guarantee that we’ll see European football next season. But things are trending in the right direction, and that’s reason enough to be excited.
Sportiello—8.5: Had an early miscue that nearly put Roma in with a freebie, but recovered and made 8 saves, several of them were mixtape worthy. His distribution wasn’t especially good, but when your goalkeeper is the only reason you end up with points, it’s awfully dumb to quibble about it.
Laurini—7: Kept El Shaarawy quiet for most of the evening and had a couple of excellent interventions. When his job is to man mark an opposing winger and boot any loose balls into the lower atmosphere, he’s quite solid (9 clearances); when his brief includes any other directions, he struggles. This was exactly the sort of match he thrives in. Also has a weird propensity for winning headers in the box despite being generously listed as 5’8/173 cm.
Vitor Hugo—7: Made a ridiculous 16 clearances, highlighting the last-ditch nature of Fiorentina’s defending. That said, he did let Dzeko wiggle free a few times and struggled with Schick. Still and all, though, did enough to keep the clean sheet, albeit with a big assist from Sportiello.
Pezzella—7: Pretty much the exact same as his partner in central defense, bustling all over the box and getting his shirt dirty. Made a couple of nice blocks on Dzeko, but also lost him once or twice.
Biraghi—7: Kept Defrel quiet in the first half, but struggled when forced to defend in his own box so much. Didn’t get many opportunities to get forward, which is his bread and butter. However, he did a pretty good job of stemming the supply of crosses from his wing and worked hard, so we’re still pretty pleased with him.
Benassi—7.5: Difficult to rate; the goal was obviously hugely important and very well taken, but he was rather a passenger for the remainder of the match. Hustled around but didn’t win the ball, and Fiorentina saw so little possession that he was invisible for pretty much the whole thing. The goal was very well-taken, though.
Dabo—7.5: Dude put in some work today. 3 tackles, 3 aerial wins, an interception, 4 clearances, and 4 blocks is a heck of a line for a midfielder. Basically played as a sweeper, but in front of the defense. The passing wasn’t great, but neither was anybody else’s. Starting to look like the steal of the season for just €4 million.
Veretout—7: Another lung-busting day grinding in the center of the pitch. With Fiorentina pinned deep, didn’t get a chance to get forward or influence the match in the center or attacking thirds very much, but helped Dabo clog up the middle and force Roma to the wings.
Saponara—7.5: Got both assists, although Simeone did all the work on the second one. Ricky was the only Viola player trying to thread the ball through into the attack and had a couple of bright moments, but also lost the ball a lot. He’s never going to be mistaken for a defensive force, but he certainly gave it the old college try. Looked exhausted by the hour mark; might be that, in a match like this, he’s only good for a half or so.
Eysseric—5: Barely involved. Never got past Bruno Peres in attack and never made anything happen, and was a liability on the back foot as Peres motored past him time and again. On the plus side, Chiesa’s back next week.
Simeone—8: Dude’s lungs must be made of iron and leather. Never stopped running at a dead sprint and kept the opposing centerbacks on their toes for his entire shift. Scored an absolute peach of a goal, but his snow-plow enthusiasm was a constant source of irritation to his opponents. Now scored in 3 straight and is maybe, maybe becoming the player we really hoped he’d be.
Milenković—7: Came on to shore up the back and did exactly that. Won the ball half a dozen times and made himself a barrier. Dzeko got very quiet after his introduction, and it wasn’t just a coincidence. With his size, athleticism, and intelligence, he’s going to be a world-clas defender for a very long time.
Dias—4: What’s eating Gil Dias? Came on to offer a threat on the counter and did the exact opposite, fluffing two pretty simple chances in quick succession. Also got beaten by Alisson in the box. It’s fair to wonder if he’ll spend next year in Florence, as per his loan agreement, with guys like Simone Lo Faso and Riccardo Sottil stepping up.
Falcinelli—n/a: Wasn’t on long enough to do anything.