Hellas Verona boss Ivan Jurić ran out his usual XI, but Fiorentina manager Vincenzo Montella made a hatful of changes: Franck Ribery returned from suspension, Lorenzo Venuti leapfrogged Pol Lirola on the right, Dušan Vlahović stepped in for late injury scratch Federico Chiesa, and Marco Benassi and Sebastian Cristoforo (making his season debut) replaced the suspended duo of Gaetano Castrovilli and Erick Pulgar in the middle. The most disappointing presence, though, was the Hellas ultras, who filled up the Curva Sud after the overturn of their match ban for racially abusing Brescia striker Mario Balotelli last week.
In the 3rd minute, ex-Viola striker Samuele di Carmine brutally elbowed Germán Pezzella in the face, breaking the Argentina international’s cheek and forcing his replacement by Federico Ceccherini. He somehow avoided a red card, perhaps because referee Antonio Giua was afraid to send someone off so early, but nobody could have argued. Perhaps cowed by som4ee extremely physical play by the Mastini, Fiorentina didn’t create anything except via Franck Ribery, who was forced to go it alone. Bartłomiej Drągowski, on the hand, was exceptionally busy, making a pair of incredible saves: a full stretch dive on a Valerio Verre drive from distance and a point-blank denial on Davide Faraoni. Hellas dominated territory and possession, creating chances largely down the Viola right, where Darko Lazović continually bamboozled Venuti. It was only by the grace of Bart that the visitors didn’t trail at the half.
Vlahović combined with Ribery early to create a couple of half-chances, but never anything that really threatened Marco Silvestri. Shortly after replacing the helpless Venuti with Lirola, the Viola conceded thanks to a brilliant move that the hosts started in their own half, worked forward and wide, and crossed (via a perfect dummy in the box) to a wide-open di Carmine, who placed his shot beyond Drągowski’s reach from a spot where either Nikola Milenković or Lirola should have marked him. The rest of the half was pathetic, as both sides scuffled in midfield without creating anything despite the introduction of Rachid Ghezzal, who didn’t add anything to the proceedings.
Drągowski—8.5: A succession of highlight reel saves from the Polish custodian was all that kept this one even remotely respectable on paper. Without a doubt, he was the man of the match, and can probably throw his hat in the ring for most under-appreciated goalkeeper in Italy at the moment.
Milenković—5.5: Reasonably sound at the back sweeping up Lazović and playing on the turn against the likes of Eddie Salcedo. Could have done better to mark di Carmine on the goal, but I’m not sure it was his responsibility. Still a bit loose in possession at times as well, especially when the midfield can’t get anything going and he tries to step forward.
Pezzella—n/a: Can’t really grade a guy who had his face broken by a horrifically dangerous play 2 minutes in. Hope he recovers quickly, although he could be looking at more than a month off.
Cáceres—6: Much like Nikola in that he was fine without standing out, although he coped much better with Faraoni, Salcedo, and Verre, largely because Dalbert and Cristoforo ahead of him were much stouter in defense.
Venuti—4: Beaten like a rug by Lazović time and again, which was weird after he did a good job of sticking with Gervinho just a couple of weeks ago. Seemed a step behind the pace at all times and didn’t get forward at all either. All in all, not the performance to secure his role at Lirola’s expense.
Cristoforo—4.5: You know what you’re going to get with Sebastian, which is a terrier’s mentality in winning the ball (he led the team in tackles, doing his best Pulgar impression in that department) and passing that ranges from cautious to wayward. It was all on display tonight.
Badelj—4: In a word, he looked washed. Without anyone else in the middle to pull the strings and deform the opposing defense, he was labored in possession without actually losing the ball very much. Tried to play higher up the pitch than usual to compensate for the absences in that zone but didn’t bring anything of note.
Benassi—4: Oof. Had twice as many touches as his replacement Ghezzal in five times as many minutes on the pitch. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know.
Dalbert—4.5: Didn’t complete any of his 8 crosses and offered pretty much nothing going forward, but at least looked sort of defensively competent, protecting Cáceres well and keeping Faraoni pretty quiet throughout.
Ribery—6: Had some bright moments and created a handful of half-chances for Vlahović, but lost the ball a mind-boggling 11 times and seemed hesitant to pull the trigger himself. Badly needs another couple of runners to do anything, since he’s not going to do the running himself at this stage.
Vlahović—5: Did a nice job of getting himself into dangerous positions and showed a bit of a connection with Ribery, finding seems in the defense to to exploit, but never managed to threaten from any of those opportunities. Just not quite ready for this level yet; sending him on loan to a Serie B club to score a bunch of goals for the rest of the year might be just what he needs, as he seems to be struggling with the jump from Primavera to Serie A.
Ceccherini—6.5: Having to come in as the central defender in a back three after just 4 minutes is a tough job for anyone, and Cecche handled it as well as he realistically could’ve. Mostly kept di Carmine in check, but struggled with the pacier Salcedo and let his focus lapse once or twice. Remains a useful depth player, though, and proved it with a good, battling display here.
Lirola—4: Maybe it was just bad luck, but it feels indicative of something that Fiorentina conceded from his area of the pitch within moments of his entering the fray. It’s really weird that he’s been so anonymous, given how good he was with Sassuolo the past couple of years; there’s still a talented player in there, and Montella can’t seem to summon him forth.
Ghezzal—5: Had one neat moment in which he exchanged passes with Lirola and played the Spaniard in, but that was it. Slow on the ball and often takes too many touches going sideways or backwards. Still offered an improvement on Benassi in this case.
Three things we learned
1. Montella’s losing the thread. Yes, there’s no shortage of mitigating factors. Very few managers can overcome the absence of the best player, two best midfielders, and the loss of the best defender and captain after 2 minutes. But what the heck is Vinnie doing with the subs? If Fede’s hurt, don’t bother naming him to the roster. Desperate for a goal against the stoutest defensive team in the league, his two attacking switches were a like-for-like swap of fullbacks and a winger who hasn’t shown anything this season. Hyped up youngsters Pedro, Riccardo Sottil, and Szymon Żurkowski remain glued to the bench despite the guys ahead of them bringing nothing to the table. Even more tellingly, it doesn’t seem like the players really care; they’re still running and still doing their best, but there’s no personality to this squad despite having plenty of talented, exciting personnel. That’s on the manager and not on anybody else.
2. Badelj may not be a full-time starter anymore. Any midfielder stuck without a competent colleague next to him to share the passing burden will look overrun at times, but that’s been more of the norm for Milan than the exception this year. Without Castrovilli’s mobility going forward and Pulgar’s in defense, the regista seemed a step slow at all times. In fairness, neither Cristoforo nor Benassi is going to bring much inspiration to the engine room, but you have to wonder if some of it’s on Badelj at this point. He’s really struggled the past few weeks and there doesn’t seem to be any end to the tunnel. With Żurkowski waiting in the wings, it may be time to give the Croatian international the occasional day off.
3. This is still a work in progress. While the miserable performance today can’t be blamed on youth—the average age of the starting XI was over 26—this particular lineup hasn’t played together once all year. More than the lack of familiarity, though, there was a simple lack of attacking quality on the pitch for the good guys. Rocco Commisso has spent his entire tenure as the club owner reiterating that he wants to win now, yes, but he’s been just as insistent on building something sustainable for the long term. Judging from the lack of big money signings this summer, it seems like the latter is the guiding principle right now. That means we’re going to see this team take its lumps this year as it figures out what the future looks like. That’ll mean some growing pains and some unpleasant moments, but we have to believe it’s all in service of a greater vision. Otherwise, we’re going to go crazy.