In perhaps the most important match of the season, Stefano Pioli opted for Valentin Eysseric over Riccardo Saponara as the trequartista. Vincent Laurini was at rightback, Nikola Milenković at centerback, and Vitor Hugo was on the bench. Diego López set out the exact XI we predicted.
Fiorentina should have taken the lead inside a minute. Federico Chiesa drove down the right wing, beat a pair of defenders, and fizzed the ball across the face of goal. Alessio Cragno mistimed his punch and merely grazed it, and the rebound fell to a completely unmarked Jordan Veretout at the back post. The Frenchman, alas, blazed his first-time effort over the bar. While missing such a brilliant chance was a gut-punch, it highlighted the fact that Fiorentina were confident and ready to play, an observation born out by the first quarter hour. The Viola kept Cagliari pinned deep in their own half, only letting them forward once on the break for Diego Farias to put in a low cross which Laurini comfortably turned behind.
At 20’, Marco Sportiello tried a short goal kick to Veretout, who nearly passed it back into the net. It was a random cock-up, yes, but also the first crack to emerge in the Viola facade. Another Chiesa cross—this one from the left wing after 27 minutes—nearly found the back of the net via a Luca Ceppitelli deflection, and Charalambos Lykogiannis nearly hit the back of his own net from a corner a few minutes later.
But Fiorentina, perhaps knowing that they had to win, began committing too many men up the pitch and inviting the Sardinians forward on the break. While the Viola backline always seemed to have an answer, it was troubling that the visitors’ pacy tridente was finding space. At the 37 minute mark, one of those attacks led to a Cagliari goal. Milenković blocked a cross in from Farias with his hand, earning the Rossoblu a free kick on the left side of the box. Lykogiannis swung in a low, hard ball that squirted past everyone. Everyone, that is, except for Pavoletti, who was nearly standing inside the net when he headed it home to hand the relegation-threatened visitors a stunning lead. After Germán Pezzella went in the book for a foul committed by Eysseric (just typical Valeri stuff, nothing to see here), the sides went in for the break.
Pioli shuffled the deck at halftime, bringing on striker Diego Falcinelli in relief of the largely effective Eysseric. While positive, the problem wasn’t finishing chances; it was creating them, and Falcinelli is never going to be a creative player. Anyways, it only took 3 minutes for Farias to somehow miss a tantalizing Simone Padoin cross, which merely reinforced the already-apparent fact that the Viola were struggling mightily.
At the hour mark, Pioli gave the largely-invisible Marco Benassi the hook and brought in Riccardo Saponara, who almost certainly should have started. However, the Cheese was unable to grease the wheels of the attack, largely due to the tactics (whether abjectly cynical or the mark of a clever team trying to ensure survival depends on where you stand) of Cagliari, who began wasting time with a steely determination, including one moment that saw half the Sardinians walk over to the sideline for water and a 5-minute chat with their manager during a break in play.
However, they were still dangerous on the break, and João Pedro should have scored after being put through 1-v-1 against Sportiello, but the Brazilian couldn’t get his effort on target. Chiesa had a couple of decent chances but missed one by inches and curled the other one just over, but it was apparent by now that Fiorentina simply weren’t going to trouble the Rossoblu defense. A frustrated Pioli got himself sent off for complaining about time-wasting, and Veretout followed him down the tunnel in stoppage time after completely losing the thread. First, the Frenchman shoved Fabio Pisacane over like a petulant toddler, earning a yellow, and then, a minute later, he leveled a truly violent “challenge” against João Pedro that left the Brazilian on the floor and both benches empty for a vigorous round of handbags. Valeri blew the match dead soon after.
Words cannot describe how wretched Fiorentina were today. It was Paulo Sousa-level bad. It was Siniša Mihajlović-level bad. The team didn’t register a single shot on target in 90 minutes. The defense left ragged gaps all day that Cagliari happily motored into. The midfield never found anything resembling a threatening forward pass. The attack never shook loose from the opposing defense. In such an important game, at home, against a team in the relegation zone, I cannot emphasize how flat and pathetic the effort was, and a lot of that has to fall squarely on Pioli.
Opting for Eysseric over Saponara from the start was certainly a tremendous mistake. The Cheese has been a critical part of the newfound attacking fluidity we’ve seen in Florence, while Eysseric has been a bit player. But the passionless, flat, and generally disinterested performance from the squad as a whole is a much bigger problem. Pioli has usually gotten the most from his players, but today they were just going through the motions. Every team has matches like this, yeah, but having one at such a critical juncture has to make club leadership wonder if Pioli’s the right man for the job next year.
Sportiello: 5—Wasn’t tested much, but mostly did well to come quickly off his line. Dinged for his distribution, which was bad all evening and nearly led to an own goal at one point.
Laurini: 4.5—Made one excellent intervention to prevent a Farias cross from reaching its target, but was picked on all night by the likes of Farias, Padoin, and Lykogiannis, who are not exactly world-beaters. Offered nothing on the front foot either. Pioli likes him in a 4-man defense working against 2 strikers, but I still can’t figure out why for the life of me.
Milenković: 4.5—The handball leading to the goal was completely unnecessary, but Nikola had trouble tracking the runs of Leonardo Pavoletti and Marco Sau for the full 90 minutes. Up against wily veterans, it’s hard to be too mad at the youngster, and we’re confident he’ll bounce back.
Pezzella: 4—Struggled as much as his centerback partner, although it’s way more embarrassing for a dude who very well might make Argentina’s World Cup squad. Seemed a step behind for the entire game.
Biraghi: 4—Ran a whole lot, but didn’t accomplish anything. Fluffed a very good Chiesa-created chance, got himself booked for being dumb, and gave Farias and Paolo Faragò free rein down the wing. His crossing was, to put it charitably, uneven.
Benassi: 3.5—Fiorentina’s pre-eminent cosplayer of HG Wells characters did it again. The invisible man routine is starting to get pretty old.
Badelj: 4.5—Gave the ball away cheaply a few times, but also failed to shield his defense at all. Basically did everything the opposite of how you want a holding midfielder to do things, which is very unlike his usual modus operandi.
Veretout: 0—Don’t think I’ve ever given a grade this low to anyone, but Jordan sure did earn it. From the terrible miss at the start to the execrable display at the end and through the intervening anonymous 90 minutes, he was simply bad.
Chiesa: 6.5—The only player who showed any signs of life. Beat his defender several times, had a couple of dangerous shots, set up a few good chances. On any other day, it might have been enough, but with nobody else even trying out there, he was one man against eleven.
Eysseric: 4.5—Had a few nice interchanges with Chiesa and Benassi early on, but rapidly disappeared from sight. Never seemed likely to pull the strings effectively enough to set Cholito or Fede through, and that was his only job.
Simeone: 5—His evening was summed up by a moment in the second half. He was fouled while dropping deep into midfield, popped up to his feet, played in Falcinelli with a quick free kick, and watched his fellow striker cross into the fourth row of seats. Yeah, he ran and worked, but never once looked like scoring.
Saponara: 4—By the time he arrived, the rest of the team was already shell-shocked, and Ricky simply couldn’t find a way to bring the best out of them. Still waiting for someone to explain to me why he didn’t start, as he might have found enough space in the early going to actually do something.
Dias: 5—Actually did something useful shortly after entering, beating two defenders to cut inside from the right and uncork an excellent shot that whistled just wide of the post with Cragno well-beaten. Didn’t really have time to do anything else.