The Fiorentina team bus got stuck in a traffic jam, pushing kickoff back by 15 minutes and providing a perfect metaphor for what was to come. Brescia manager Eugenio Corini decided that Mario Balotelli was only fit enough for the bench, while his Viola counterpart Vincenzo Montella judged that Federico Chiesa had recovered enough from a hip injury to get the start. Another point of interest was that the broadcast booth set up its stadium microphone right in the middle of the away support, so the Mario Rigamonti seemed to be filled with Tuscan singing, which was a bit funny.
The hosts had the back in the net within 5 minutes via Florian Ayé following a storming Sandro Tonali run, but VAR took the goal off the board for a slight but clear handball on the young midfielder. The visitors responded through Gaetano Castrovilli, who slithered through the defense and forced Jesse Joronen into a diving save. Ayé came close again from a corner, but the Viola settled in, with Pol Lirola making it too easy for Joronen with a shot from close range and Dalbert tracking down a glorious Erick Pulgar pass over the top but neglecting to find either Franck Ribery or Federico Chiesa with his cross. The half finished scoreless, which seemed fair, as neither side had demonstrated a lot of quality around the opposing goal, but it had been a deeply entertaining end-to-end affair with nobody afforded any time on the ball.
Despite bringing on Balotelli for the ineffective Alfredo Donnarumma, the hosts couldn’t muster much of anything. It turned into a rather scruffy midfield battle, the worst of which was a clumsy Pulgar challenge on Daniele Dessena, which ended the veteran’s evening and possibly his season, if his reaction was anything to go by. Balotelli did bullet a header just wide of the post on a corner, but it was at the other end where we got a bit of drama: Chiesa went over in the area and was booked for simulation. It looked like he tripped more than anything and didn’t ask for the penalty, so he was pretty ticked off. Germán Pezzella came close with a header from a corner. While substitute Dušan Vlahović provided a few decent moments, the last 10 minutes belonged to Riccardo Sottil, who constantly beat his man down the right and wreaked havoc, although he couldn’t quite get the end product right as Joronen turned in a truly magnificent performance. The last chance of the game was Castrovilli’s; some delicate passing through the box gave him a chance to shoot, but his drive clipped Vlahović on the line with the goalkeeper well beaten and bounced out. It was just that kind of evening.
Drągowski—6: Didn’t have a whole lot to do, honestly. Not at fault on the VAR-removed goal at all and didn’t face any other significant challenges except for maybe a deflected Romulo shot/cross that he smothered well.
Milenković—6: Began the game looking rather shaky, letting Donnarumma and Romulo find space in behind. Grew into the proceedings, though, and completely shut down Balotelli in the second half.
Pezzella—6.5: Had trouble organizing his defense, particularly in the first half, and had all kinds of problems tracking the strikers. Like the rest of the team, he improved as the game stretched on and eventually came out very well indeed, controlling everything in the air. Provided a good threat at set pieces as well.
Cáceres—6.5: Probably the best player in the first half, consistently shutting down Romulo and Stefano Sabelli, turning in last-ditch interventions, and making things nigh impossible for the attackers; he did switch off badly once, leaving Ayé alone on the back post, but VAR saved his blushes. Remained solid after the break as well.
Lirola—5: One step forward and another one back. Lost the ball far too cheaply and was frequently too high up the pitch to help the defense. Has to be worrying about his job security after another dynamite performance from Sottil.
Pulgar—7.5: Man of the match. Performed his usual furious defensive work in the middle (perhaps a bit too ruggedly, as Dessena will attest) with 3/3 tackles and 3 interceptions, but also added quite a bit in attack, and not just with some good dead ball deliveries. Hit several magnificent long passes and cracked off a shot or two from distance. Great work.
Badelj—5.5: Did the usual things at the back that allow everyone else to shine, yeah, but he seemed a bit off the mark today. Several routine passes that he usually buries went awry, and he was also a bit looser on the ball than you’d like. It’s probably just a blip for the Croatian metronome.
Castrovilli—6.5: Looked like the most dangerous man in attack and added a bit more defensively than usual as well. Spent long stretches out on the left wing, though, where he wasn’t as influential as you’d like and got tangled up with Dalbert and Ribery. Probably had the two closest efforts on the night but was just a hair below his sparkling best.
Dalbert—5: Not great from the Brazilian. Never found space in behind, couldn’t keep the ball at his feet, and struggled mightily to track Sabelli’s forward bursts.
Chiesa—6: Didn’t look quite fit, so it’s hard to grade him harshly. Provided a couple of good chances, but seemed a bit passive at times. Only had one moment where he decided to grab the match by the neck and make it his, and it didn’t result in a goal.
Ribery—5.5: Produced a couple of nice moments, but was wayward with his passing and too often lurked on the periphery, crowding Castrovilli and Dalbert. We always knew there’d be matches like this, although having a target for his passes into the box may have helped him quite a bit.
Vlahović—5.5: Showed clever off-ball movement and quick feet on the ball, but couldn’t quite lace on his shooting boots. At a certain point, getting close just doesn’t cut it. The man badly needs a Serie A goal.
Sottil—6.5: A shot of adrenaline. His ability to get past his man both with and without the ball and attack space in behind opens up a lot of space, particularly when the left side is all gummed up. The end product isn’t quite there, but the only way to improve it is reps on the pitch with the starters. He’s earned that, at least.
Boateng—n/a: Barely on the pitch and his only touch was a feeble one. Why not give Pedro a chance?
Three things we learned
1. It’s time to develop Plan B, and Plan B needs to involve a striker. Full credit to Corini and his defense, which did a brilliant job of shutting down Fiorentina’s strikerless formation. The centerbacks stayed put and the carrileros stayed wide; the only space was through the middle, and Castrovilli was the only man looking to exploit it. Adding a central forward who looks to find space in the box would have stressed the defense a lot more than playmakers with no one to make a play for. Dušan’s shown signs of being that man, but he’s better on the break. Kevin-Prince Boateng is an awesome guy and far from useless, but he likes to occupy the same spaces as Ribery and Castrovilli. It’s time to give Pedro a look; whether that means pulling Chiesa or Ribery off and trying the Brazilian in the 3-5-2 or developing an alternate shape (4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 seem logical, while a 3-4-2-1 could work too) is a must. Here’s hoping Montella schemes it correctly.
2. Get Riccardo Sottil on the field, stat. As mentioned above, he’s very good. This is two appearances in a row now—he was brilliant against Sampdoria too—in which he’s come on for the last 10 minutes and tilted the play his direction. It’s possible that Vinnie likes him as a joker running against tired legs at the end of a game, particularly when his defensive abilities won’t be called into question (he may well be unable to hold up against the likes of Alex Sandro and Kwadwo Asamoah), but he added more to the attack in those last 10 minutes than Lirola had in the previous 80. Rather than having a clear-cut starter and closer, this may be a situation where they rotate. On the plus side, if Montella’s good at anything, it’s fitting the greatest number of talented attackers onto the pitch simultaneously.
3. Brescia has a good team. Balotelli and Tonali (holy smokes is he good) may get all the headlines, but this Rondinelle outfit is rock solid. Corini’s developed a pretty good system for his players, and guys like Joronen, Sabelli, Romulo, and Donnarumma could play for most Europa League-chasing sides in Serie A without missing a beat. While it may feel like a real letdown to see the end of a winning streak come against a recently-promoted side, these guys should stay up without any real problems. They look a sight better than, say, Udinese, at least, and this point will seem a lot better once the Leonessa has claimed a couple of high-profile scalps.