Carlo Ancelotti rotated his side a bit ahead of the beginning of the Champions League; the biggest surprise was between the sticks, where Orestis Karnezis got the nod ahead of David Ospina. Stefano Pioli welcomed Jordan Veretout back from suspension, but otherwise sent out his usual XI, which meant Valentin Eysseric kept his berth on the wing despite rumors that Marko Pjaca would finally get the start.
Also worth noting that the San Paolo wasn’t even half full, as the Napoli supporters stayed home to protest Aurelio de Laurentiis’ scumbag move of raising ticket prices to €35 to punish the fans for protesting his recent purchase of Bari; the Partenopei faithful are inclined to think that ADL should be sinking that money into his current team rather than embarking on a new project. The ticket price hike is supposed to help pay for repairs to the decrepit San Potato (which surely needs them), but is almost certainly a punitive measure.
Napoli took a while to stamp their authority on this one, leading to a back-and-forth opening. The first chance fell to the hosts in the 6th minute, though, when José Callejón’s cross was deflected towards goal, forcing Bartłomiej Drągowski into a diving save. 2 minutes later, Dries Mertens went over in the area under a Nikola Milenković challenge, but referee Michael Fabbri didn’t even bother with VAR, much to the Neapolitans’ disgust. Fiorentina responded through a Marco Benassi header (courtesy of a nice Cristiano Biraghi cross) which looped off target and a piledriver that Valentin Eysseric blasted on frame from fully 35 yards out that forced Karnezis to tip over. Neither midfield seemed able to get a grasp of the proceedings, leading to a very open match.
After that first quarter hour, though, Napoli took control by keeping possession and pushing the Viola back; this may have been intentional from the visitors, as it gave them lots of space to break into, leading to a running battle between Giovanni Simeone and Kalidou Koulibaly, with the Argentine winning a handful of fouls off the defender. Lorenzo Insigne came close with a volley from a cross that skimmed just past the post, but the real action occurred in the 25th minute, when Koulibaly lost his cool and kicked Simeone well off the ball, then somehow avoided getting cautioned or even talked to for a cardable offense. 5 minutes later, Cholito pulled a nice turn on the Senegalese and caught an elbow in the face for his trouble; once again, the defender avoided a card, leaving Napoli with 11 men when they certainly should have been down to 10.
The match continued in its now-established pattern of Napoli possession in the Viola half interspersed with quick Fiorentina counters and quick Napoli counter-counters, although these mostly led to half-chances at best. Insigne remained the dangerman for the hosts, constantly getting in behind or finding space in the channels, but his flicks never quite came off as Drągowski proved equal to whatever the pintsized attacker threw at him. At the other end, Federico Chiesa had a good glimpse at goal a bit before halftime after some excellent pressure from Eysseric and Biraghi won the ball high up the pitch, but his curler slipped just past the far post with Karnezis rooted to the spot. When the whistle came (after no stoppage time, which was unexpected), a scoreless draw seemed both a fair reflection of play and a result Fiorentina would certainly accept.
Just two minutes after the restart, Marek Hamšík spooned a wide open shot over the bar from just inside the area following a 3-v-2 break. Insigne tried to curl a free kick on target moments later, but his effort skimmed the bar, and Bart had it well-covered anyways. At 53’, Benassi dithered on the ball after more good pressure from Eysseric and Chiesa forced a high turnover and snuffed out a very good chance for the visitors. Soon after, it was Mertens who cut in from the right and lashed a low shot just wide of the post; Chiesa and Eysseric responded with a neat one-two that resulted in the latter firing way high from a good position.
Pioli yanked Gerson at the hour mark in favor of Bryan Dabo in an obvious attempt to counter Napoli’s dominance in the middle, but the Partenopei kept passing around the Viola press despite the Burkinabe’s best efforts. Just after the hour, Insigne’s cross deflected and Drago was once again forced into a sprawling save to prevent a freak goal. However, it seemed that Pioli had instructed his charges to dig in and play for the draw with 30 minutes remaining, inviting too much pressure from the hosts without offering any threat, and you knew that it was going to end badly.
Insigne had another couple of decent efforts—including a header in the middle of the box that he won between Vitor Hugo and Germán Pezzella, who are both a lot taller—but he waited until the 80th minute for the dagger. Substitute Arkadiusz Milik played him through and the Italian fired a striker’s finish just past Bart; Pezzella may have been slow stepping up to push him offside, but it was simply a very well taken goal. That was pretty much the ballgame, aside from another tremendous Drago stop on a Piotr Zieliński blast.
This is a tough one to process. On the one hand, Pioli got his tactics spot on from the start: Fiorentina looked well-organized at the back and dangerous on the break, although the lack of another explosive option to carry the ball forward (Marko Pjaca says hi) clearly limited the team’s chances. Too, a highly-competitive 1-0 loss away to last year’s Serie A runners up, coming off a surprise loss and having spoken ahead of the game about how important a win was for them, is hardly the worst result ever. Also remember that the Viola have the youngest team in Serie A and that this was the first road trip of the season, and that Koulibaly probably should have been sent off before halftime. All in all, that makes it seem palatable.
And yet. And yet. And yet. What leaves a bad taste is Pioli’s apparent decision to pack it in and play for a draw after an hour. Sitting back and soaking up pressure for 30 minutes against an opponent you’ve troubled a bit on the break is not a winning mentality. Only bringing Pjaca on for the final 10 minutes and when you’re already down a goal is the sort of defeatism that alienates fans very quickly. While we understand that Fiorentina are going to be underdogs at Napoli in the best of circumstances, a bit more positivity would go a long way towards demonstrating the hunger and desire that we want the club to have.
Drągowski—7.5: Reminded us why he was so highly rated when he arrived in Florence. Fearless punching out crosses, quick off his line, and made several very impressive stops. Not at all at fault for the goal. May well have been man of the match for the visitors.
Milenković—6.5: Mostly coped quite well with Mertens, who shaded to his side of the pitch, and Insigne. Nobody’s going to stop that pair for a full 90 minutes, but Nikola was very good, particularly in space, and made some brilliant tackles. Offered nothing going forward, but that clearly wasn’t his job today.
Pezzella—5.5: Mostly stood firm against everything that Napoli threw at him and put in a committed performance. Tracking quick, technical little forwards isn’t his forte, though, and he had a few moments where he lost his man, most notably on the goal. But keeping this Partenopei attack quiet is a tough ask for anyone.
Vitor Hugo—5.5: Like Pezzella, was pretty solid booting out everything that came near him, although he had a few unsteady moments. Clearly much happier playing in his own box and not worrying about runs in behind, and it showed.
Biraghi—5.5: Had a couple of nice crosses, but was largely pinned back by Callejón and didn’t get forward much, leading to a complete lack of width on the left. Obviously, much of that is Pioli’s fault, since Eysseric spent much of the game in the middle of the pitch, but Cristiano was a bit slow defensively in this one as well.
Benassi—5: Bustled about in his strange central midfielder-cum-wingback role and popped up in the box a few times, but had very little impact on this one otherwise, and didn’t track Mário Rui at all when the fullback motored forward. This was a throwback to last season for Marco, and we don’t mean that in a good way.
Veretout—5: Looked slow and out of sync in his first competitive match since last year, which isn’t too surprising. Didn’t look like a good fit in the deepest midfield role, though; struggled to influence the game and didn’t do very well shielding the defense. Maybe just needs time to settle in, but this wasn’t promising.
Gerson—6: Probably the brightest spot in midfield. Scrapped well and had an entertaining series of battles with Allan. Was also the triggerman for several promising moves, finding Chiesa or Simeone in space, and contributed defensively a bit as well. His propensity for getting booked is a bit concerning, but he put in a solid shift here.
Chiesa—6.5: Surprisingly quiet in this one, as you’d have thought he’d have the beating of Rui all day long. Didn’t get many good balls to feet, which certainly didn’t help, but he was frequently guilty of putting his head down rather than making the simple play. On sheer talent alone, though, that made him the most dangerous player out there for his side today.
Simeone—6.5: Started well and made himself a pest for the Napoli defense and should have seen Koulibaly sent off, but faded in the second half, possibly due to the, er, robust challenges he faced every time he touched the ball. Hamstrung by a lack of service from the midfield.
Eysseric—5.5: A very typical game for him. Has the quality to produce a couple of good moments every match, but his tendency to come inside, leaving the wing bare, and his inability to dribble past a man or sprint into space means that he doesn’t really remove the focus from Chiesa very much. Should be ceding his spot to Pjaca sooner rather than later.
Dabo—5: Not great from the bald badass. Got himself booked quickly and wasn’t able to physically subdue the Napoli midfield, which was certainly Pioli’s hope. Tried to dribble a bit too much and it didn’t work out for him either. Still a very useful player, but not for this type of game.
Fernandes—5: Didn’t really do a whole lot of noticeable things, but was incapable of slowing down Napoli’s passing in front of the defense. Still not very convincing in the holding role.
Pjaca—n/a: Didn’t get the minutes to do a damn thing, but should see his role expanded from here on out.