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Fiorentina 3-0 SPAL: Recap and player grades

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That may be the best 90 minutes of football that the Viola have put together this year.

ACF Fiorentina v SPAL - Serie A
“E un Pjaca importante”
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Pre-match

Stefano Pioli set out the exciting tridente of Federico Chiesa, Giovanni Simeone, and Marko Pjaca for the first time at the Artemio Franchi. The rest of the team was the usual XI, indicating that this may be the new default, as Alban Lafont made a surprisingly quick recovery from his hamstring niggle; he only missed two matches when we’d feared he’d be out a month. Former Fiorentina Primavera manager Leonardo Semplici also went with his usual XI, including former Viola men Jasmin Kurtić and Felipe dal Bello.

Considering that Fiorentina Women’s got their Serie A campaign off to a terrific start with a 6-1 pasting of Atalanta Mozzanica on Friday (Alia Guagni, Ilaria Mauro, Liliana Kostova, Tatiana Bonetti, Isotta Nocchi, and Lana Clelland each netting once) and that the Primavera handled Udinese 2-1 (Dušan Vlahović and Nicky Medja the scorers), a win here would round off a heck of a weekend.

First half

Fiorentina came out looking like they wanted to put this one to bed early, with Chiesa and Jordan Veretout heavily involved in the early going. Giovanni Simeone had the first real chance at 7’, but his quick reaction to turn and hit one didn’t have enough juice to trouble Alfred Gomis. 2 minutes later, Nikola Milenković lashed the ball into the net off a corner, but was correctly pinged for being a hair offside. Aside from a brief foray forward that saw a Kurtić cross fizz across the face of Lafont’s goal, the opening 15 minutes were all Fiorentina; the hosts were keeping the ball in the visitors’ end and consistently threatening by keeping the wingers wide, which in turn left a lot of space between the three SPAL defenders and gave Pjaca and especially Chiesa a lot of room to operate.

The opener came after 18 minutes, and it came through Marko Pjaca. Cristiano Biraghi whipped in a deep cross that Mohammed Fares completely borked, leaving the ball right in front of the Croatian about 6 yards from the net. The Juventus loanee made no mistake in dispatching his first-ever Serie A goal, and just like that the hosts had a well-deserved lead. The Viola retreated into their own half after the goal a bit too much and invited a lot of pressure as SPAL furiously pressed forward to equalize; their best chance came from Mirco Antenucci, but the veteran poacher somehow completely whiffed on a free header in the box. Other than that, the defense looked completely impregnable, and just before the half hour mark, the defense came up big on the other end. Specifically, Veretout skied a corner into the box and Milenković soared to meet it with his head and bullet it in for his second goal of the year. Gomis’ nightmares will probably feature the enormous Serb charging him at a dead sprint for years, as the goalkeeper wisely decided to stay the hell out of the Mountain’s path as the SPAL defense let the goalie down.

Things slowed down after the half hour mark, as a bunch of SPAL players suffered minor injuries that left play rather choppy. Even so, though, Fiorentina remained in complete control. Lafont’s only action was to easily smother a probing effort from Antenucci that never troubled him. On the other end, Chiesa came within inches twice; first, he cut in from the left and hit a curler that bounced inches wide of the back post, and then drove forward on the right and let fly a piledriver that Francesco Vicari partially blocked, sending the ball looping just over the bar. When referee Davide Ghersini blew thrice, Fiorentina had a 2-0 lead that fully reflected their dominance, and you could see the party already getting started in the Curva Fiesole, as SPAL simply aren’t constructed to overcome a 2-goal deficit away in just 45 minutes.

Second half

Pioli brought off Biraghi at the half due to a combination of the Italy international’s booking for a hard foul on Manuel Lazzari and a possible ankle injury, which meant that 20-year-old Slovakian David Hancko made his Fiorentina debut. The kid wasted no time in making his presence felt, bursting down the left and raking a low cross through the box that nobody quite managed to reach. The Slovak was involved on the other end, too, as Lazzari cut inside to feed Andrea Petagna 3 minutes later for a missile shot that Lafont blocked back into play, but Hancko reacted quickly to sweep it clear. He also had an interchange of backheels with Chiesa in the attacking third a moment later to put the winger through on goal, but Fede’s shot scooted just wide with Gomis rooted to the spot.

After another Kurtić blast from distance that came a bit too close for comfort, Fede finally got his goal at the 56’ mark. He dropped in to win the ball in midfield and fed Pjaca who carried the ball forward and exchanged passes with Marco Benassi before getting the ball caught under his feet in the area. Fede, spotting his moment, darted forward and coolly finished in the area, then peeled off to celebrate with his younger brother Lorenzo, who was working as a ballboy on the touchline as their parents looked on from the stands. It’s perhaps the definitive image of Federico’s young career, and was one of the sweetest and most emotional moments I’ve ever seen in a football match.

ACF Fiorentina v SPAL - Serie A
Seriously tearing up in the pub as I write this.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Now with a 3-goal lead at home and a half hour left, Fiorentina pretty much put it on cruise control. Chiesa exited to a standing ovation at 66’ and Kevin Mirallas came on, and the Belgian put on a show. He got in behind, cut inside to shoot, and generally looked like the guy who starred for Everton for years. Hancko also continued to look really impressive, completely shutting down the dangerous Lazzari and adding an impressive dimension in attack. Milenković nearly completed his brace from another corner, but the last real drama came as Kurtić put a really bad challenge on Germán Pezzella that resulted in a straight red card. One VAR consultation later, though, Ghersini reversed his decision (correctly) to a yellow, and the game ended with Mirallas and Kurtić each having decent efforts. But Ghersini blew the match over, there was no question that the hosts fully deserved their 3-0 win.

Post-match

This was the single best Fiorentina performance I’ve seen in a long time. Even the 6-1 against Chievo Verona featured 30 minutes of the Donkeys taking it to the Viola; in this one, there was a brief moment after the first goal in which Fiorentina sat back a bit too much, and they let it open up after halftime, but they reasserted their superiority after 5-10 minutes each time. They made chances, kept the ball, and basically looked like a Champions League caliber side dismissing a lower-half opponent without ever getting out of third gear. That they did this against SPAL, who came into the fixture sitting second in Serie A, is pretty damn impressive.

Full credit here goes to Pioli, who got all his decisions completely right. By keeping his wingers high and wide, he stretched the SPAL back three and opened a lot of space in the channels, and then gave Gerson and Benassi the freedom to push wide and overload the wings. Even more encouraging, though, was his willingness to keep his foot on the gas after Pjaca opened the scoring. Hopefully, the positive result from that will drive home the point that this team isn’t really built to park the bus, but is rather designed to roar forward and overwhelm opposing defenses, leaving a wake of diesel fumes and destruction in their wake.

Also, this seems like a good place to mention that this was just about the friendliest match I’ve seen in Serie A in a long time too. There was no dirty play, no diving, and both sets of players accepted whatever the referee said without complaint. They also did a wonderful job of checking on each other after fouls and collisions, helping each other to their feet, and generally providing a living example of how opponents ought to treat each other. The away support, too, was raucous and lively for the full 90 minutes, bursting into song at 13’ to remember Davide Astori. The whole thing was just damn lovely; that the Fiorentina faithful were in full throat for the whole match made it perfect.

Oh yeah, Fiorentina are third in Serie A right now.

Player grades

Lafont—6: Had very little to do. Remains quite tidy with his distribution from the back and has a knack for finding angles to work the ball into midfield. Spilled the Petagna shot into a dangerous area but was otherwise quite safe.

Milenković—7.5: Starting to look like the threat from set pieces you’d expect such a massive human to provide, but remains most notable for being pretty much unbeatable at the back. Marshalled Antenucci and Fares without ever looking worried. It’s no longer a matter of waiting for him to break through; he’s a genuine star.

Pezzella—6.5: Lost track of Antenucci for that header, but otherwise did an excellent job of directing traffic and safely moving the all around the back or forward to the midfielders. Just a steady, comforting presence at all times.

Vitor Hugo—6.5: Battled Petagna to a standstill, harrying the big striker all over the pitch. Showed a willingness to step out of the backline, which was a new thing, and provided a good secondary option at set pieces. He’s probably never going to play for Brazil, but performances like this make it clear that he is, at worst, an above-average defender.

Biraghi—5.5: His ball in created the opener, but that was more on Fares’ howler. Struggled to keep pace with Lazzari going back and fully earned the yellow he received for a bad foul on his fellow international. Went off partially due to a knock, so hopefully he’s okay for Inter Milan on Tuesday.

Benassi—5: Very quiet match from Marco, even in the new wingback-ish role that Pioli’s developed for him. Never found space in behind and didn’t seem to spend much time on the ball.

Veretout—7: Controlled play brilliantly in the middle and set the tempo for the full match with his smart and assured passing, moving the ball neatly out to the wings as quickly as possible. While he brings plenty of hustle as a defender (at one point he took a corner that SPAL broke the other way with and ran down the ball carrier past the center circle), but still doesn’t have the defensive instincts of, say, Milan Badelj.

Gerson—6.5: Looked like a very different player in this one as he had permission to drive forward with and without the ball. His knack for playing on the turn and then bursting into space between the lines adds even more dynamism to the midfield, and he’s been better than advertised as a ball-winner, although that’ll never be his forte.

Chiesa—8: Oh my goodness. At the heart of everything for Fiorentina. Had the beating of every defender he saw and showcased a bit more awareness, barely missing Pjaca with a couple of neatly clipped crosses to the back post. We’re witnessing his aposiopesis here, so let’s just enjoy the ride.

Simeone—5.5: Put in a heck of a shift defensively, but seemed a step of when going forward. Aside from one early reaction shot that Gomis stopped pretty easily, never tested the keeper, and his linkup play was not especially good. Given that he’s played 270 minutes this week, it’s fair to wonder if fatigue played a role in this one.

Pjaca—7: Will never score an easier goal, but it was still a relief to see him get on the board after the Sampdoria match. Tracked way, way back on defense and thus wasn’t as high up the pitch as you might like, so he was a little quieter than we might have liked. Seems like his pace and dribbling should make him a perfect outlet to kickstart counterattacks, but it’s hard to argue with the result here.

Hancko—6.5: Woah. Came out and looked utterly fearless, which you don’t generally expect of a 20-year-old making his Serie A debut. Showed energy and intelligence in attack, stretching play and hitting several dangerous low, first-time crosses; also played an exquisite backheel to Fede in the box. Has the tackling and positioning down, but did get smoked once by Lazzari cutting inside. Still, though, looks like he has a long future as a very good professional. Corvinata.

Mirallas—6.5: This is the Kevin we wanted to see. Got in behind, dropped short to combine with the midfield, drifted inside, stayed wide before cutting in to shoot, and generally looked like dynamic and dangerous. Came quite close to scoring a couple of times.

Eysseric—n/a: Didn’t play enough to merit a grade, but did combine neatly with Mirallas on a counter near the end that put the Belgian through.