Stefano Pioli unexpectedly started Vincent Laurini at rightback rather than Nikola Milenković, sparking a brief flurry of rumors that the big Serbian was finally heading to Manchester United before everyone realized that he had the flu. At the other fullback spot, David Hancko got the nod over the suspended Cristiano Biraghi. Christian Nørgaard also got a rare start in midfield while Marco Benassi returned to his usual shuttling role on the right. For Chievo Verona, Domenico di Carlo handed a start to Mehdi Léris in the midfield, while former Viola man Nenad Tomović manned a centerback spot.
It was a pretty miserable day in Verona for a football match. It had been snowed until just an hour before kickoff, at which point a steady, frigid rain began that continued throughout the match, leaving the playing surface as slick as you can possibly imagine. That didn’t deter 700ish fans traveling from Florence, who frequently drowned out their counterparts inside the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi.
It didn’t take the visitors long to make their mark as, after just 4 minutes, they won a free kick after Léris kicked Jordan Veretout in the ribs. After the Frenchman swung the ball into the box, it pinged back out to Benassi at the edge of the box, who slipped it across to Luis Muriel. The Colombian exchanged a quick one-two with Hancko; while Fabio Depaoli got a touch to the return pass, he merely laid it into space, and Muriel left Stefano Sorrentino no chance, roofing his left-footed finish over the veteran goalkeeper for his third goal in two matches with the Viola.
The goal forced the Mussi Volanti out of their shell, and they responded mostly by getting their fullbacks forward on the overlap to cross; pretty much every other pass they hit was long, straight, and in the air. The Viola looked to exploit the pace of their forwards in behind, especially when the Chievo fullbacks moved forward, but Depaoli especially looked dangerous, feeding Sergio Pelissier in the area for the old man to lay off to Mariusz Stępiński, who crashed his effort off the upright. On the ensuing goalkick, Alban Lafont tried to play short up the middle and instead passed it directly to Emmanuele Giaccherini in the area. The veteran attacker, scarcely able to believe his good fortune, duly slotted the ball home, but after a lengthy VAR consultation, referee Daniele Chiffi denied the goal on the basis of Pelissier’s toe touching the box during the goal kick, letting Lafont and Fiorentina off the hook for one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever seen. The home fans were not impressed.
Chiffi took center stage for awhile at this point, booking Benassi for an innocuous challenge, whistling Nørgaard for cleanly winning a 50/50 ball, and then declining to book Preparim Hetemaj for a heavy challenge on Chiesa that snuffed out a quick counter. Then he gave Chievo a free kick in shooting range for a very soft foul by Germán Pezzella on Stępiński, from which he ignored what sure looked like a penalty conceded by the Viola captain, who pushed Pelissier in the back to prevent him from reaching a dinked ball over the top. Depaoli then crunched Simeone with a brutal sliding challenge from behind that went unpunished; this was all in the space of 6 minutes.
Football eventually resumed as Benassi played a lovely ball through for Cholito down the right. The Argentine drove to byline before cutting it back to Benassi, whose first-time shot fizzed into the top corner, leaving Sorrentino no chance. It was Benassi’s 6th goal of the year and it infuriated Chievo beyond belief, as they felt that Chiffi had bilked them out of two goals only for the Viola to capitalize. Losing Tomović to a serious-looking non-contact injury moments later didn’t help either. The Viola nearly got another gift at 37’ as Chiffi got in the way of a Chievo pass, leading to a 3-v-3 break for the Fiorentina tridente, but Luis Muriel overdid it and lost possession with better options available. A minute later, the hosts finally scored through a powerful Stępiński header, which came from a lovely cross in from Depaoli; it was a good leap and good contact, but Vitor Hugo and especially Pezzella could have stuck a lot closer to him.
The closing minutes were all Fiorentina, though. First Chiesa cut past Depaoli from the left and fired a shot that was blocked, then Hancko played Muriel through down the left, but the Colombian’s quick cross was blocked out for a corner with Chiesa lurking on the back post. Next up was Simeone, clean through after a nice Nørgaard pass, but he Cholitoed the chance with a terrible first touch taking him wide rather than towards goal, and he ended up having to blast one from a narrow angle that Sorrentino beat clear. He did better to combine with Fede in the box moments later, but the winger’s return ball couldn’t quite find him. Hancko got a free header from a corner but collided with Simeone, resulting in a very off-target try. At the other end, Giaccherini sent a free kick whistling just past the upright, then drove past Laurini but couldn’t find the cutback. The final chance, though, belonged to Simeone, who once again slipped past the Gialloblu rearguard, but Depaoli recovered in time to poke it away. Thus ended a pretty wild half in which the hosts could certainly make the case that they’d been hard done by, but it was the visitors with a 1-2 lead.
Pioli brought on Gerson for Nørgaard to start the half, but it was Giaccherini who got a shot a minute after the restart, although Lafont handled it pretty coolly. Nicola Rigoni got himself booked for a very late slide on Veretout a minute later, but the visitors were quite peeved that Chiffi blew the play dead, as they were breaking forward with a numerical advantage. After another Giaccherini drive ended in a corner, the diminutive attacker’s terrible delivery set the Viola away on a break. Muriel played Simeone through, but the striker couldn’t figure out what to do next and lost it, much to Chiesa’s disgust. Seconds later, though, Veretout switched play to Fede, who jinked inside from the right and fired a shot that deflected out for a corner. At 56’, Lafont claimed a cross and hit a stunning low kick that completely cut out three Chievo defenders, leaving Muriel one-on-one with Sorrentino, but his cheeky chip fluttered wide of the post.
At the hour, though, it all went wrong. Following a Chievo free kick on the wing, Léris shot from inside the area. He would have scored easily but for Benassi reaching out an arm and blocking it, earning himself a straight red card and a penalty for the hosts which Pelissier dispatched to his right, just underneath Lafont. With half an hour left and a man advantage, the Bentegodi came alive again. Pioli responded by introducing Bryan Dabo for Simeone (just like last week). At the 63 minute mark, Gerson popped up on the right centered it for Chiesa, but it was achingly too far ahead for the attacker, who could keep his sliding shot on frame. The match was getting testy at this point, with some shoving and very dirty play (looking at you, Hetemaj), but Chiffi was obviously incapable of controlling things. Five minutes later, Chiesa had a magnificent solo effort, tracking down a long ball on the right, motoring past Bostjan Cesar, and hammering a shot off the crossbar. Next it was Veretout picking off a pass and feeding Muriel, but the winger couldn’t quite combine with Chiesa. Fede had another go from the left, shooting wide from a tight angle.
The Donkeys got a chance at 70’ after a nice Paweł Jaroszyński cross for Stępiński, but Gerson (!) stuck tight to the striker and kept him from doing any more damage. 3 minutes later, Lafont made an acrobatic stop on a Depaoli shot that was probably heading over anyways. Chievo had clearly scented blood, though, and were throwing everything forward, crossing everything into the area and keeping Lafont on his toes. The goal, though, came on the other end: Veretout intercepted and played it forward for Dabo, who hit a ball through the defense. Fede timed his run perfectly to stay onside (not even VAR could find fault), ran the pass down on the left, got the ball onto his right foot, and coolly finished past Sorrentino to hand the short-handed Viola a 1-3 lead. Direct from the kick off, the Viola nearly doubled their lead; Jaroszyński hit a terrible backpass, sending Muriel racing down the pitch. The Colombian found Chiesa, who then squared to Gerson, but the Brazilian took too long to get his shot away and Depaoli managed to get the block in.
The drama wasn’t over, though, as from the ensuing corner, a Gialloblu defender headed the ball towards his own backpost, where a sliding Muriel, completely alone, crashed a shot off the upright. A minute later, Chiffi whistled Gerson for handling a Giaccherini cross in the area; it seemed a very harsh decision, considering that the midfielder was turning and had his arms close to his body, and that the ball struck him from close rather than vice versa, but no matter. Pelissier tried his luck in the same spot he’d scored earlier, but Lafont was ready and punched it away; it was the first time that the Chievo captain had had a penalty saved in Serie A. A minute after that, Veretout fed Chiesa down the left. After laying it off to Gerson, Chiesa lanced into the middle of the area and met Gerson’s low return pass with a flying first time finish to hand the visitors a shock 2-4 lead, sending the visiting support into raptures.
We still weren’t done, though, as Filip Đorđević got one back for the hosts in the 89th minute, meeting another sumptuous Depaoli delivery as Pezzella once again lost his man. With 5 minutes of stoppage, Chievo threw everything forward and came close twice in the dying embers: first, Depaoli shook loose on the back post and met a Jaroszyński cross with an acrobatic volley that smashed into the turf and then up and over the crossbar. A minute later, Giaccherini wormed past Federico Ceccherini and had a go from 10 yards; Pezzella blocked the shot off the line and Giaccerini hurled himself to the ground under Ceccherini in a blatant attempt to win yet another PK, but Chiffi shockingly made the correct decision not to whistle it. Despite letting the match go for an extra minute, he eventually blew the game dead, much to the visitors’ relief and the hosts’ dismay.
Guh. Relying on last-minute heroics and blatant referee errors to beat the worst team in the league is not exactly ideal, but the 3 points to 9th place, just 2 points back of Atalanta for the final Europa League spot. It’s also promising that this team once again managed to dig deep and notch a shorthanded victory, even scoring some goals in the process. All of a sudden, the attack isn’t a problem here; this team has scored 9 goals in 2019, averaging 3 per match.
On the other hand, the defense looks bad. Shipping 3 to Chievo is embarrassing, and a second consecutive match with a midfielder getting sent off for doing something unnecessarily stupid shows a lack of discipline. It’s not like Fiorentina were dominating before Benassi’s dismissal, either: they would have been tied had he not blocked that shot, and that’s humiliating. The inability to pass the ball around and take the sting out of a match is definitely a problem for this team, as it insists on playing open, end-to-end football at all times. While entertaining, that’s not a recipe for maintaining a lead; 5 times this year, Fiorentina has scored first and then given up the lead, and they nearly did it again here. That’s a lot of dropped points, and the lack of midfield control is the primary culprit. That, again, is on Pioli, who’s only got one speed. That has to change if this team wants to qualify for Europe, much less make any noise there.
Lafont—6.5: I have no idea how to grade him here. Bailed out by the slightest of technicalities for a truly bone-headed play, but also saved a penalty and should have had an assist with a magnificent pass that opened the entire Chievo defense. Dude is just a weird player.
Laurini—6.5: Looked really good. Offered consistent support to Chiesa up the pitch and mostly did well against Giaccherini and Jaroszyński. Looked solid and contributed, but this is probably around his maximum level.
Pezzella—5: Rough match for the captain, who had trouble keeping track of Pelissier and Stępiński, particularly on crosses. Seemed to miss the physicality of Milenković next to him. He’ll be fine.
Vitor Hugo—5.5: Fared a bit better than his fellow central defender, but not much. Let Pelissier slip past him several times. Made a few decent tackles up the pitch, though, which is becoming a specialty for him.
Hancko—5.5: Maybe not ready for a full-time role yet, but definitely showed considerable promise. Stayed very high and wide, much like Biraghi, and contributed a few nice balls in. Struggled more on the back foot, where his inability to stay in front of Depaoli gave the Chievo fullback plenty of nice crossing opportunities and 2 assists. Still, there’s no shortage of positives to build on.
Benassi—6: Another tough-to-rate day. His passing was much better than we’ve seen from him and he seemed involved in possession, particularly in playing some neat through balls. The goal was brilliantly taken, in typical Marco fashion. Then he went and undid all that with a single really dumb moment.
Nørgaard—5.5: He was probably picked to add some composure to the midfield and to mark Giaccherini out of the match, thus breaking the link between the forwards and the rest of the team. He didn’t really do either, although he showed decently as a ball-winner and demonstrated a willingness to play the killer pass. Still, didn’t offer quite enough, partly because Veretout occupied the holding role for most of the match.
Veretout—7.5: Brilliant for the entire match. Dominated play in the middle, consistently winning the ball with good positioning before launching attacks with accurate balls forward. It’s hard to tell against Chievo, who are bad, but this was certainly his best performance in the holding role.
Chiesa—8.5: Simply brilliant. Offered an attacking outlet time and again with his intelligent movement in behind. Showed no signs of the selfishness that had crept into his game earlier this year, continually looking to get his teammates involved rather than going it alone. Scored two excellent goals and was only denied his hat trick by the bar. Simply too much quality for Chievo to stop, or even really slow down.
Simeone—5.5: Another lackluster match for the striker, although at least he got an assist to Benassi and showed some good movement in behind. His finishing remains poor and his first touch lets him down far too often. On the plus side, he did the dirty work to keep the defense off Chiesa and Muriel, so at least there’s that.
Muriel—7: Brilliantly scored the opener and looked intermittently deadly throughout. Had two other gilt-edged chances, but boofed the first and struck the post on the second. Occasionally held the ball too long, but continues to look like a terror in the open field, and his presence prevents defenses from focusing too much on Chiesa.
Gerson—6.5: Looked sharp, driving the ball forward and tracking back well. His ability to win fouls remains impressive, but his diffidence in the final third remains a bit frustrating. Still, he got up and down well and assisted Fede’s first, so no complaints here.
Dabo—6: Added solidity to the middle, sure, but his ability going forward is underrated. It can’t be coincidence that, in the last two matches, he’s come on with Fiorentina down a man and that the team has suddenly looked better in attack. Has a knack for finding space and shifting the ball forward without fuss. Give this man a start, dammit.
Ceccherini—5: Came in to add height in the penalty area and kind of did that. Looked a bit shaky when asked to stick with Giaccherini, which is too bad, but it’s always hard for a defender to enter late and look sharp.