Because women’s professional football is often treated as an afterthought and thus frequently makes no sense, the UEFA Women’s Champions League kicks off the competitive season for Fiorentina Women’s. A matchup with Danish powerhouse Fortuna Hjørring looked likely to be a stern test for the Viola, whose season doesn’t begin until 15 September (hey, that’s this weekend!).
Fortuna are one of the most decorated teams in Scandinavian history. They’ve won the domestic league 9 times, including last year and in 2016, and have never finished worse than runner up; they’ve also won the cup 8 times. They’re formidable in Europe as well, having reached the final in 2003 and making the quarterfinals as recently as 2016. Last year saw them bounced out in the Round of 32 by none other than Fiorentina, so the Green and Whites had the added motivation of revenge, as well as the luxury of having already played 3 league matches to find their best form.
The first leg in Florence, then, had all the familiarity of old foes. However, it was the hosts who came out firing from the start at the Stadio Gino Bozzi with newly-acquired Bulgarian midfielder Liliana Kostova forcing Fortuna goalkeeper Hannah Seabert to an audacious looping shot from distance over the bar. In the 9th minute, though, defender Alia Guagni did well to step into midfield and fire a daisy-cutting clearance into the strikers. Lana Clelland reached it first and slowed it down enough for Ilaria Mauro to smash a sensational shot into the top corner despite having a defender pulling her down.
The Danes responded well, pushing forward and coming close off a corner after Viola goalie Stephanie Öhrström punched the ball away, only to see it bounce around in the box before striker Karen Holmgaard flicked a header past the stranded Öhrström. However, Belgian fullback Davina Philtjens was on hand to clear the ball off the line and maintain the clean sheet. Just before the half, Clelland had a great chance to double the lead after beating the offside trap to meet an incisive ball through from Tatiana Bonetti, but Seabert was quick off her line and smothered the Scot’s attempt to poke it past her. The sides went into the half with the hosts holding a 1-0 lead that reflected their dominance.
Both sides emerged from the tunnel with renewed vigor and the match devolved into a gritty midfield scrap which needed someone to grab the match and take it over. Fortunately, Fiorentina could call on the fantasia of Bonetti, who split the defense again with a delicate chip for a marauding Guagni, who got in behind an unleashed a fierce angled drive at Seabert. The Dane was unable to control the shot and it was, of course, Mauro who materialized from nowhere to scramble the ball over to double her tally and take the lead to 2-0.
Fortuna threw numbers forward, but it always looked like set pieces would be their way back into the match, as the average height of the team was considerably greater than that of the Italians. Sure enough, with about 20 minutes left, the Green and Whites hoisted a long free kick into the box that the Viola defense misjudged, giving Frederikke Thøgersen a free swing at goal. The Danish international, however, mistimed her shot and blasted well over, but the visitors kept the pressure on, pinning Fiorentina deep in their own area. Winger Sanni Franssi must have thought she’d scored a peach after cutting in from the left and uncorking a flawless curler, but Öhrström read it beautifully and made a gravity-defying save to palm it wide. Despite nearly 30 minutes of relentless pressure, the whistle blew the match dead on a 2-0 win for Fiorentina.
A two-goal lead and a clean sheet are exactly what you want to take into a hostile stadium for the second leg of a tournament against a dangerous opponent. Since I can’t embed the video, here is a link to the highlights. The reverse fixture isn’t until 26 September and the Italian league will finally begin again, which means that the Viola need to focus on their season-opening clash with Mozzanica, who held them to a draw in Florence last year.
As an aside, you really need to watch this team. They’re one of the two best in Italy (along with Juventus) and could make some noise in the Champions League this year as outsiders. They play a fun and exciting style of ball that features lots of attacking and vertical passing, using pace in behind and clever passing to hit on the half-break time and again. There’s plenty of star power—backup goalkeeper Francesca Durante, defender Elena Linari, midfielders Alice Parisi and Greta Adami, and striker Ilaria Mauro are all key members of the Italian national team, while Davina Philtjens (Belgium), Sophia Koggouli (Greece), and Lana Clelland (Scotland) are all internationals as well. Best of all, the matches are streamed for free on the team’s Facebook page.
While it’s exciting that the men’s side of Fiorentina has picked up steam this year, keep in mind that the women are way ahead and deserve your support as well.