The longed-for end of the international break means that we get Fiorentina calcio back. The downside, of course, is that the team gets its first road trip of the year to face Napoli, which is always a difficult fixture even without the loss in focus that the break frequently brings. In their last 10 matches in Serie A, the Viola are W2 D3 L5. They haven’t won at the Stadio San Paolo since 2014; you can also toss a couple of Coppa Italia defeats into that string of futility. Despite that recent run of poor form in this matchup, though, it’s the Viola who hold the all-time lead in this one, with 56 wins, 47 draws, and 52 losses.
The referee for this one is Michael Fabbri of Ravenna, who has a tendency to let the players play, sometimes to the point of allowing some pretty physical stuff. In the 6 Fiorentina matches he’s handled, the Viola are W4 D1 L1. That loss, though, was last year’s season-ending demolition at the hands of AC Milan. Coincidentally, he also reffed the scoreless draw in this fixture last year.
Fresh off a stinging defeat to Sampdoria, this is a Napoli outfit that is angry and looking for revenge, especially since, as midfielder Allan has stated, there’s a feeling in Campania that the Viola cost the Partenopei a shot at the scudetto last year. However, with the Champions League group stages beginning, the Neapolitans may rotate the squad a bit ahead of a clash with Crvena Zvezda to make sure they don’t stumble in a brutal Group C that also includes Liverpool and PSG.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti has the depth to sit some key players in this one if he wants to. He won’t have goalkeeper Alex Meret (arm), centerback Vlad Chiricheș (knee), or winger Amin Younes (Achilles), but they’re all long-term absences so he’ll have planned around them. Striker Arkadiusz Milik is likely to start from the bench after the break, so Dries Mertens should reprise his center forward role. Amadou Diawara and Piotr Zieliński should join Allan in the middle, although a start for Marko Rog or Fabián Ruiz wouldn’t surprise. With Chiricheș out, Raúl Albiol should start in the middle, while Faouzi Ghoulam is probably ahead of Mário Rui at leftback.
If Mertens starts over Milik, expect the tricky little Belgian to tempt the centerbacks up the pitch before running in behind; he and Lorenzo Insigne are probably the main dangermen, although the midfield will need to track Zieliński carefully as well, as the Pole likes to get into the box. Milik, while an excellent player, is a better matchup stylistically for the Viola defense. The problem for Napoli is a leaky defense, which has conceded 7 goals from 7 shots on target this year; they’ll certainly improve, but it’s definitely the weakest department of this team despite the presence of the brilliant Kalidou Koulibaly.
The break came at the worst possible moment for the Viola, who’ve built momentum on the back of two impressive wins and have become a trendy pick to make some noise in Serie A this year. However, let’s not forget that this is the youngest team in the league and that both those wins came at home and against bottom-half clubs. Getting a result against a desperate Napoli is a very different kettle of fish from battering Chievo Verona or outlasting Udinese, and this early test could tell us a lot about the team’s prospects this year.
Stefano Pioli will be anxious about losing goalkeeper Alban Lafont (hamstring), although he’ll be boosted by the return of midfielder Jordan Veretout from suspension. His 4-3-3 will match Napoli man-for-man across the pitch, which means that this could come down to discipline and individual brilliance; that’s rather been the mister’s tactic all along, so this could be the sort of matchup he wants.
That said, he’ll know that Napoli will throw everything forward early to test the inexperienced Bartłomiej Drągowski in goal, so this team will probably start out defending with all 10 outfield players and looking to hit on the break. That could mean that we’ll finally get to see Marko Pjaca or Kevin Mirallas from the start, as they both bring considerably more threat on the counter than the lead-footed Valentin Eysseric. It’ll also be interesting to see which midfielder Pioli drops to make room for Veretout: Marco Benassi must be untouchable, so we’d expect Edimilson Fernandes to make way before Gerson, whose ability to carry the ball forward could be critical in this one. Should that happen, Veretout will drop into the holding role he played in during the preseason.
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Ted’s Memorial Blind Guess Department
Given the recent history between these two and Napoli’s defensive shortcomings, this could be a high-scoring affair with plenty of chippy stuff in the middle. I’ll call it a 2-2 draw, with Fiorentina roaring back behind goals from Giovanni Simeone and Pjaca (getting his first) after Napoli take an early lead behind Simone Verdi and Mertens.