On a day that was tailor-made for a football match, Stefano Pioli ran out something resembling his first XI, with newcomer (and former Blucerchiati star) Luis Muriel handed a start on the left wing. Despite early reports that the team would set up in a 3-5-2, it looked a lot like the usual 4-3-3, although Marco Benassi was benched in favor of Edimilson Fernandes. Marco Giampaolo set out Sampdoria in the usual 4-3-1-2, with ex-Viola man Riccardo Saponara on the bench.
The hosts came rocketing out the gates and utterly dominated the opening stages. Cristiano Biraghi was involved, swinging in a couple of dangerous crosses that nobody could turn goalwards. Federico Chiesa and Gerson also had a couple of nice moments, as did Muriel, who got to the touchline and fired a low cross in that once again couldn’t make its way to a purple shirt. The first shot of the match came on a quick break after Fernandes won the ball with an excellent tackle and set Gerson racing forward. The Brazilian played in Fede, but the winger’s angled shot fizzed wide of Emil Audero’s far post. At 12’, though, Chiesa turned provider, dispossessing Nicola Murru and leaving Joachim Andersen for dead; the Viola 25 got to the touchline, turned, and hit a ball in for Giovanni Simeone, who was arriving at full speed to the front post. Cholito was unable to turn it home as Audero intervened, but the striker maybe could have done more. Still, the opening quarter hour was all Fiorentina: they kept the ball in Samp’s half, created chances, and barely had to defend (aside from a brilliant stop by Vitor Hugo on Gianluca Caprari on the counter). Besides a reckless and justly-booked foul by Fernandes on Dennis Praet, everything looked good.
At 16’, Simeone really bottled a chance. He held his run well and got in behind, but took too many touches before shooting and allowed Murru to get a sliding block on his attempt. Samp began pushing forward a bit but it still looked like the Viola’s game to lose, especially when Gastón Ramírez earned a card for a very late challenge on Jordan Veretout after 20 minutes. 90 seconds later, the Uruguayan stamped Biraghi on the wing and surely should have gotten a second yellow, but referee Marco di Bello somehow chose to not even blow the whistle and let VAR sort it out. Not 2 minutes later, Caprari went in late on Nikola Milenković and got away with it as well, although the Mountain got a bit of his own back when floored Ramírez moments later. Di Bello looked incapable of restoring order and Fiorentina were in danger of losing their heads, highlighted by Germán Pezzella losing Fabio Quagliarella at the back post only for the veteran striker to miss a tap-in.
Fiorentina recovered well, though, with Muriel at the forefront. Just after the half hour mark, he sent Jacopo Sala off to the stands to get some lampredotto and lanced in a low ball that bounced around in the area before Samp cleared it, but at 34’ the Colombian decided to take of it himself. A surging run down the left carried him past the defense and clear, and the Sevilla loanee made no mistake with his left-footed finish to score his first goal for Fiorentina. Showing respect to his old club, he didn’t celebrate, but his new teammates mobbed him as the Franchi roared its approval. 2 minutes later, though, the Viola nearly gave Caprari the equalizer from the top of the box, but Alban Lafont gathered safely.
At 39’ minutes, though, Edi Fernandes made a truly boneheaded tackle and justly earned his second yellow, although his dismissal did make one wonder how Ramírez was still on the pitch too. Fiorentina clearly just wanted to end the half and rather lost focus, with Jakub Jankto missing an absolute sitter after Lafont spilled a routine corner right to his feet, but it was, of course, Ramírez who equalized with a peach of a free kick at the 44 minute mark. The foul was suspect as well, as Jordan Veretout went shoulder-to-shoulder on a challenge with him, but the goal counted despite the furious whistles of the tifosi. After Simeone went down holding his face—which Di Bello somehow left unpunished as well despite booking Milenković for something similar—the teams trudged into the dressing rooms with a 1-1 tie and a stadium full of fans who were seething at the referee.
Pioli pulled Simeone and brought on Bryan Dabo to help hold the middle, leaving his charges in a rough 4-4-1 shape with Chiesa out right and Muriel alone up top. Giampaolo also shuffled the deck, bringing on the Cheese for Ramírez. After a bit of venturesome play from the visitors resulted in an off-target shot from Quags, Fiorentina slowed things down, leading to a disjointed affair that was very stop-start; given that they were down a man, that was surely the intention. Di Bello earned the fans’ ire again when he declined to book Quags for a hand to Pezzella’s face (again, Nihola had been booked for the same offense in the first half), but we did get to see Saponara rush over to make sure that the captain was okay, which was a nice moment.
Even di Bello had to card Jankto, though, when the Czech midfielder dove onto Chiesa’s back to stop a quick counter after Fede had turned him inside out just after the hour mark. And just like that, Fiorentina grew into the match and started to threaten despite being down a man. Chiesa, Gerson, and Dabo combined down the right to create some havoc in the area, but nobody could put the finishing touch on the move and it eventually fizzled. At the other end, Vitor Hugo put in a bad sliding challenge on Saponara that left the Cheese crumpled in a heap but di Bello didn’t caution him, much to everyone’s astonishment. Moments later, Muriel played Chiesa in with a clever little dink, but the winger’s shot was blocked.
But at 70’, that goal happened. Following a Blucerchiato attack, Chiesa latched onto the ball at the top of the Viola box and fed it upfield to Muriel, who took an exquisite touch inside his own half and turned past his marker, then rounded another defender and raced up the pitch, leaving the entire Samp defense in the land of wind and ghosts. Having sped clear of everyone (except Fede, who’d somehow managed to catch up and give him an option to square it), the Colombian fired past Audero and handed Fiorentina a shocking lead. Just go watch it. It’s one of the best you’ll ever see.
Clearly gobsmacked, the visitors were unable to muster up an immediate response, and Pioli gave Muriel the hook at 77’ in favor of Vincent Laurini to see out the match. It all came to naught, though, as Vitor Hugo made a mind-meltingly bad decision to stick his arm out in the area and strike a relatively harmless-looking Saponara pass. Quagliarella duly dispatched the penalty to equalize. Fiorentina looked shaky now, Vitor Hugo in particular, and you had to wonder if the visitors would find a winner. Sure enough, in the 86th minute, Quags got the ball in the box, held off Milenković, and blasted it home. Up a goal and up a man with 3 minutes left, Samp clearly thought they’d won.
The action was far from finished, though. Pioli pulled Vitor Hugo and introduced Kevin Mirallas, adding some more width to the attack. It worked initially, as Samp turtled back and let Fiorentina come at them. After di Bello whistled dead a quick free kick that saw Laurini go streaking down the touchline for no reason at 88’, Quagliarella took a dive in the box that incensed Pezzella. The drama continued to unfold as Grégoire Defrel crunched Gerson, and seconds later Murru hacked down Mirallas from behind. The Belgian didn’t stay down, and indeed bounced back up and ran after his antagonist with the clear intention of giving him a piece of his mind, which Murru clearly didn’t want. Both benches emptied out as everyone tried to sort things out, and di Bello finally handed out a spate of cards and a free kick on the right wing in stoppage time. Instead of swinging the ball into the box, though, Veretout picked out clever low pass Chiesa, who darted towards the near post in the box and latched onto the ball before turning his marker and floating in a cross that took a slight touch off Albin Ekdal before dropping at the back post for a rendezvous with Pezzella, who hammered it home for his first goal of the year and the most improbable equalizer imaginable. Scenes ensued and the whistle followed immediately after.
Besides the fact that this match was more brutally emotional than any we’ve seen Fiorentina play in ages, there was a lot to pick out. Obviously, the biggest takeaway is that Muriel looks like the perfect complement to Chiesa. They’ve already forged a pretty good understanding on the pitch and could fire this team to a rise up the standings in the second half of the season. Pioli also did pretty well with his tactics, dominating the opening stages and coping well when down a man. Earning a point against this high-flying Samp outfit despite spending an hour down a player is a heck of an accomplishment.
On the other hand, it’s hard to see why the mister went with Edi Fernandes, whose continued presence in the XI is impossible to justify. He doesn’t seem to fit into this team at all and adds more mistakes than positives. He’s young and could still grow into a very good player, but it’s time to get Bryan Dabo more involved, as the Burkinabe was brilliant for the entire match. As for giving Muriel the hook early, I think it’s fair to give the head Piolus a pass: we don’t know if match fitness was a factor, especially since the Colombian was charging around like a maniac, and adding a defender when you’re down a man and up a goal for the last 15 minutes is generally a pretty good choice.
Lafont: 5—Not at fault on any of the goals, but could have easily shipped a fourth after spilling a pretty routine corner right into Jankto’s path; only the Czech’s terrible shooting spared his blushes. Had a few passes to nobody as well. Let’s just chalk it up to rust and move on.
Milenković: 5—A rare bad day for the mountain, who had trouble with Caprari and Defrel’s pace and Quagliarella’s veteran wiles. Maybe it was intentional, though, as he tries to convince various big money clubs to leave him be in this window, in which case he’s a genius.
Pezzella: 7—Really can’t fault him for any of the goals, although he did lose Quags at one point only for the striker to miss a sitter. Showed some real leadership, though, holding things together and keeping the team focused. And oh my goodness, could you have written a more perfect ending to the match? Pure class.
Vitor Hugo: 5—A weird game for the big Brazilian. His high pressure set up the first goal and he kept his man quiet for most of the match, but made three glaring mistakes. The first was a skewed clearance (something of a specialty for him) that went right across the face of goal and ended up giving Caprari a shot. The second was an awful tackle on Saponara that easily could have been a straight red. The third was the handball.
Biraghi: 6—Got forward well in the first half and provided a few good crosses. Buckled down and defended well after the red card, too, although he’s much better on the front foot than on the back one. Also showed a willingness to get in di Bello’s face a little bit, which was well-merited.
Fernandes: 3—Took a good shot and made a good tackle, but getting two yellows in 30 minutes for completely pointless fouls is dumb, dumb, dumb, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. Dude was very bad today, down to the deer-in-the-headlights play in possession. Needs to spend a lot of time on the bench.
Veretout: 7.5—Magnificent out there today. Dominated the spaces in front of the defense and neutralized Ramírez in the first half. Kept the ball moving around and hit some good passes forward, as well as making a few trademark rumbles of the pitch in possession. Very clever in the free kick routine at the end, too.
Gerson: 6.5—Not his best but not his worst. Scrapped gamely enough in the middle and scuttled forward well. Looked a bit hesitant to shoot from distance a couple of times, but made some clever runs off the ball to open things up for Chiesa in particular. Just a solid cog.
Chiesa: 7—Made a few brilliant runs forward and should have gotten an assist to Simeone, but the striker bottled it. Later on had a couple of heavy touches in the box that could have resulted in clean shots, but showed a good understanding with Muriel and generally looked dangerous. Still the man.
Simeone: 4.5—Missed two more golden opportunities to score, which is starting to feel like par for the course. His movement was pretty good today, though, and he seemed to do alright working with Muriel. Still, the misplaced shooting boots remain a serious concern.
Muriel: 8.5—Oh my goodness was he special today. Two brilliant solo efforts to score and a heap of helpless defenders in his wake. Showed a willingness to not only do the running and the scoring, but also to get his teammates involved. Just pay the fee now and call it good, please. Really looking forward to a few more months of him teaming up with Fede and terrorizing defenses all over the peninsula.
Dabo: 7—Brought in to shore up the midfield and did exactly that, brushing the featherweight, technical Samp engine room off like so much dust. Was good going forward, too, keeping his passing simple and positive. Basically, it was exactly what he does every time he’s on the pitch. Surely deserves to start over Fernandes, although we’ll see what happens next week with Benassi probably returning to the XI.
Laurini: 5.5—Wasn’t super involved, but kept things quiet on the right and showed a willingness to motor forward when necessary. Seems to be regaining Pioli’s trust of late.
Mirallas: n/a—Didn’t play long enough to garner a grade, but seeing him jump to his feet and go full Terminator is probably going to give Murru sweaty palms when he watches that replay.