Stefano Pioli opted for a familiar defense and a familiar attack around an unfamiliar midfield. With Jordan Veretout still suspended, he surprisingly opted for Edimilson Fernandes in the holding role rather than Bryan Dabo or Christian Nørgaard. Marko Pjaca, still nursing an injury, was fit enough only for the bench, which put Valentin Eysseric out on the wing.
Lorenzo d’Anna fielded his expected outfield setup, although he was forced to use backup goalkeeper (and ex-Viola primavera star) Andrea Seculin while Stefano Sorrentino recovers from a neck injury inflicted by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Fiorentina began the match (and their Serie A season) positively, pinning back Chievo Verona and launching a series of breaks after winning the ball high up the pitch. The first chance fell to Marco Benassi in the 3rd minute, but the midfielder’s volleyed shot from outside the area looped way over the crossbar. A minute later, Cristiano Biraghi bent in a cross that forced Nenad Tomović to put the ball out for a corner. Federico Chiesa hit a magnificent curler in the aftermath, but Seculin corralled it. 4 minutes later, though, the Viola took the lead in magnificent fashion. Biraghi played a low cross at the top of the area to Giovanni Simeone, who touched it over to Benassi. Seculin blocked the midfielder’s shot, but the Donkeys were only able to clear the ball to the edge of the area, where Nikola Milenković absolutely bodied Emmanuele Giaccherini (who’s a good foot shorter) before striking a simply astounding volley into the top corner for his first career Fiorentina goal. I cannot describe what a perfect hit it was.
Chievo responded well, however. Mariusz Stępiński made a late run into the Viola box for a free header on the front post which he fired over at 12’; 5 minutes later, the Pole nearly scored again following an Alban Lafont mistake which gave him the ball inside the 6-yard box, but Lafont and Vitor Hugo managed to turn him away. Lafont also parried a Valter Birsa drive into the middle of the box a bit later. The Gialloblu had the Viola pinned back and looked likely to get the breakthrough. It took Fiorentina until 36’ to regain their composure, when Fernandes lofted a ball over to Benassi, who’d run past the defense. Marco headed it square for an onrushing Cholito, but Seculin barely intervened.
But it showed that Fiorentina had recovered their swagger, and they began hanging onto the ball inside the visitors’ half, looking for a way through. Chievo hit the post twice in the 38th minute, but the flag had already gone up for offside. Edi Fernandes got himself booked, too, for a foul on the wing that Birsa baited him into. 5 minutes later, though, Chiesa and Simeone combined brilliantly on the break, playing a 1-2 through the defense before Fede tried to beat one too many men and the ball fell to Cholito, whose shot was blocked out for a corner. Eysseric swung the ball in and chaos ensued. Vitor Hugo won the header, directing the ball to Simeone, who held off a defender and swept the ball goalward, where Seculin parried. Germán Pezzella’s follow-up was cleared off the line, but only as far as Gerson, who finally poked it home for his debut Viola goal. He nearly added another in stoppage time, too, but Tomović blocked his shot on the way in. The Viola headed in up 2-0, but Chievo had controlled the 20 minutes in the middle of the half.
Attacking towards the Curva Fiesole, Fiorentina came out with a renewed vigor. It only took 3 minutes for them to get on the board again: Cholito chased down a long pass and fired a laser cross from the touchline into the middle, where Benassi had shaken free of his marker and powered a bullet header past Seculin from 5 yards out. Now with a 3-0 lead, you could sense that the squad was relaxed and ready to enjoy themselves, and that’s exactly what they did, bossing possession in the middle of the pitch. Pioli handed Nørgaard his debut in relief of Fernandes at 54’, and the Dane added to the calm in the center.
Just after the hour mark, Biraghi found himself in acres of space on the left and swung one in to Chiesa, but the winger couldn’t sort out how to handle the awkward height of the ball and left it begging. Biraghi tried a drive from distance a few minutes later that wasn’t far off, but the next attacking highlight came from Gerson. Eysseric picked out the Brazilian’s run over the top, and the AS Roma loanee squared for Cholito before unexpectedly cutting behind him. The striker backheeled it into his path for what would have been a goal of the week candidate, but the shot was a weak dribbler. Two minutes later, though, Gerson made amends, picking out Federico Chiesa on the break with the Chievo defense in shambles. Fede made no mistake with his sliding, first-time shot, powering it past a despairing Seculin to make it 4-0.
After Marko Pjaca and Bryan Dabo replaced Chiesa and Gerson, Chievo struck with a quarter hour remaining, and of course it was Tomović who netted the header from the near post off a corner. The Serb’s celebration, though, earned a powerful ovation from the Franchi: he raised a one and a three with his fingers, symbolizing Davide Astori’s number 13. Say what you want about Nenad the player, but Nenad the man is pretty great.
Dabo and Eysseric combined with a couple of backheels at 87’ to put the former through, but he couldn’t pick out Simeone or Pjaca and the attack fizzled out. But at the beginning of stoppage time, Benassi earned a brace with a clever run towards the back post that Biraghi picked out with a brilliant looping cross that Marco settled with his right and lashed goalward with his left. A slight deflection (off Tomović, naturally) redirected the ball enough to beat a despairing Seculin, putting Fiorentina 5-1 to the good. And, in the most Cholito moment ever, Giovanni finally got his too. A run over the top, a neat exchange with Eysseric, and a poked finish later, the Argentine ran to celebrate with his father Diego Simeone, who’d come to watch his progeny. Abisso mercifully blew the whistle after that to wrap up a marvelous start to the season.
Before we get too carried away here, let’s remember that Chievo Verona looks a good bet to be relegated this year despite their heroics against Juventus last week. Let’s also remember that the Donkeys took command of this match for nearly half an hour when it was just a one goal game. While the scoreline is utterly delightful, stretches of this match were a bit dire if you’re trying to figure out what to make of this new-look Fiorentina.
The biggest part of that, though, was a midfield comprised of guys who’d never really played together. When Veretout returns from suspension, he should add some composure in possession that Fernandes, as a 22-year-old making his first appearance in Serie A, couldn’t provide today. If this team can figure out how to control a match, though, as they did throughout the second half, the rest of Serie A is in for a rough year. Full credit to Pioli here, too, who clearly adjusted his tactics at halftime and instructed his charges to keep the ball rather than pound it into the channels every time.
Lafont—5: Made a few good stops, but also had a couple of mistakes that a better side than Chievo might have punished. Of course, it’s hard to criticize a 19-year-old making his official debut, and he’s clearly got the quality to make an impact this year. We’ll be watching closely.
Milenković—8: Dominated Giaccherini for the full 90 minutes, never allowing his opponent to dribble past him or find space to work in. If the world didn’t know about the Mountain that Kicks after last year, you can go ahead and assume that this is his big breakout year. And oh my goodness, that goal was the Platonic ideal of a volley from outside the area.
Pezzella—7.5: When Chievo threatened for awhile in the first half, Pezze was the man who turned them back. Unbeatable in the tackle and unimpeachable with his positioning, his composure and industry at the back were exactly what you want to see from the man wearing the DA13 armband. Still think it’s absurd that he didn’t go to the World Cup.
Vitor Hugo—5: A bit shaky from the Brazilian, whose penchant for mishit clearances and passes, glimpsed last year, seems to have returned fully intact. Also nearly handed Stępiński a goal following a miscommunication with Lafont. Hopefully he doesn’t take a month to get into the swing of things as he did last season.
Biraghi—7: His energy and crossing going forward were one of the team’s primary attacking outlets, and he fully deserved the assist he got for Benassi’s second. While his defense is occasionally a bit lax, that’s mostly because his brief is to attack more than defend, so you can’t hold it against him too much. Surely deserves a chance with the Azzurri soon.
Benassi—8: Looked like the same old Benassi early on, what with the profligate shooting and misplaced passes, but grew into the match. Ended up playing almost as an extra striker at times, pressing Chievo in advance of Simeone. In the second half, Pioli moved him to a central role rather than the wide one he’s been in at Fiorentina, and he excelled. Promising.
Fernandes—5: A bit lost, honestly. Doesn’t have the defensive instincts for the holding role, and seemed to have a case of nerves, misplacing a few easy passes and missing his touch badly at times. Still had a couple of bright moments, but definitely needs to settle down.
Gerson—8.5: Man of the match. His verticality from midfield, ability to dribble past a man, and clever passing and running were revelatory. Already has a good understanding with the attackers. Might be a Riccardo Saponara replacement to link the forwards with everyone else through his energy rather than his passing.
Chiesa—7: Mostly a quiet night from Fede. Although he naturally burst past his marker a few times, had trouble beating the unheralded Paweł Jaroszyński. The end product still isn’t always there, as illustrated by his trying to beat 3 men instead of cutting back to Cholito. But he got his goal and he’s still Chiesa, so he’ll be just fine.
Simeone—7: He still doesn’t add a lot to the buildup, but his furious pressing and tireless running in behind make up for it. Showed a bit of unexpected creativity in combining with his teammates on the break, and fully deserved his goal and assist. Hopefully he can build off this performance and have a confident, productive season.
Eysseric—6.5: Was fairly invisible as he drifted inside, playing long stretches of the match as a number 10 rather than as a winger. When he gets the ball in space on the break, though, he’s got the vision and technique to pick out the runners, and he did so several times. Not a bad change of pace from Pjaca and Kevin Mirallas when they’re healthy, and an adequate replacement while they’re not.
Nørgaard—6: Obviously had instructions to shut things down and did so nicely. Kept his passing short and simple, never ventured forward, and sat in the hold to break up Chievo attacks. Not sure that he’s ready to pick apart a defense, but can clearly come in to close out a win.
Pjaca—5: Didn’t do a whole lot in his 15 minutes, although he was stationed on the right rather than his preferred left. Had Dabo picked him out on a late break, very well might have gotten his goal.
Dabo—5.5: The combination play with Eysseric involving a pair of backheels to each other was delightful, but he couldn’t finish the play. Helped shut things down with his pure physical power otherwise.