Vincenzo Montella brought on a host of new faces, with Pietro Terracciano, Luca Ranieri, Lorenzo Venuti, Marco Benassi, Rachid Ghezzal, and Riccardo Sottil all starting. Cittadella manager Roberto Venturato made a bunch of changes as well, meaning that neither side trotted out its first choice XI.
Cittadella started brightly, forcing a good save from Terracciano within the first 90 seconds and hemming the Viola into their own half for the first 6 minutes. After looking deeply rattled, Fiorentina eventually woke up and reversed the action, keeping the ball nicely in the middle and finding space out wide with the fullbacks. Lorenzo Venuti in particular looked lively, twice putting in excellent crosses that Dušan Vlahović couldn’t turn home (including one completely free header. It was Sottil, though, who created the first goal from nothing: he won the ball up the pitch, shrugged off a foul, and crossed for Benassi, who took a touch and slotted home. Fiorentina kept the pressure up well but couldn’t add a second before disaster struck with Venuti earning a straight red for tripping up Žan Celar on a breakaway. Montella eventually withdrew Sottil in favor of Lirola, much to the young Italian’s disgust, but Citta had the bit between their teeth now and should have equalized through Giuseppe Panico.
Montella must have spent the second half reorganizing things quite well, as the Viola came out very effectively. It didn’t take too long for Ghezzal to control a long ball over the top, hold off two defenders, and then center it for (who else?) that man Benassi to slam home. The second goal opened things up even more; Citta threw numbers forward but it was the hosts who looked more dangerous, with Ghezzal, Vlahović (again), and Castrovilli all wasting good chances on the counter. Aside from a late couple of half-chances through Federico Proia which Terracciano repelled, Fiorentina saw things out fairly effectively, albeit with a lot of negativity.
Terracciano—7: Didn’t face any shots that most Serie A goalkeepers wouldn’t have saved, but offered a calming presence between the sticks and punched clear everything that came near him. Also seemed to keep everyone loose in the dressing room and focused on the pitch. Exactly what you want in a reserve goalie.
Venuti—3: Was probably the standout attacker while he was on the pitch, twice pinging in perfect crosses that his teammates couldn’t tuck away. However, he really didn’t need to foul Celar, particularly in that situation and at that point in the match, so his grade suffers accordingly.
Milenković—7: Immense in every sense. Time and again showed up with a key tackle, interception, header, or block. Always in the right place. Perhaps at fault when Celar got through, but that may have been because Ranieri headed the ball backwards too. Very strong from the big man.
Ranieri—6.5: Continues to time his tackles on the ground as well as any player I’ve ever seen. Still needs to get stronger and still prone to occasionally losing his man or forgetting where he needs to be (again, he flicked on the pass that put Celar through), but he never seemed troubled by Serie B attackers. Great opportunity for him to get his confidence back.
Dalbert—6: Ran like a man possessed, as per usual, and offered width on the left before the sending off. Much more reserved afterwards and seemed to be targeted later on by Cittadella, who built several decent chances down his flank. Looked exhausted late.
Benassi—7.5: Man of the match for me. Playing off a main striker, his late runs into the box were consistently dangerous. Also dropped in and did some of the grunt work on defense, even spending a few minutes at fullback. Even hit a couple of decent passes.
Pulgar—7: Looked great as the regista after a torrid start. Did a nice job of switching play to the wings and keeping things moving a la Badelj, although Citta never really pressured him as much as they should’ve. After the red card, reverted to his tough-tackling, pit bull self, never giving up an inch in the middle and making things difficult for the opponents.
Castrovilli—7: Danced his way out of trouble consistently and went on a couple of trademarked twinkle-toed runs in attack but also added some clever passing that he hadn’t previously displayed, particularly a knack for switching play out to the right. Really should have scored but we won’t be too mad.
Ghezzal—6.5: Started very slowly, but looked very good after Venuti went off. The assist was class and he fired a curler just wide of the post not long after. Still holds the ball too long and runs sideways, slowing down attacks, but he’s got enough wiggle in him to be a useful piece.
Vlahović—4: Missed three (three!) wide open chances today, which is becoming his defining characteristic. His work rate, ability to find space in the channels, and skill at turning past a marker are all fantastic, but he simply has to score when given such great opportunities. Not very many opponents will be as accommodating as to let the Viola win when the striker misfires that many times.
Sottil—6.5: Looked lively during his brief run and got an assist. Was very upset to be subbed off and got in a bit of a tiff on the bench about it, which isn’t a good look at all. There’s no doubting that he’s a ballplayer, though.
Lirola—6: Lost Panico at the back post and was lucky the forward didn’t score, but was otherwise pretty solid defensively. Didn’t add much going forward, but that was probably the plan, given the circumstances.
Cáceres—n/a: Dug into the box and smacked everything that came near him back out for a little while.
Terzić—n/a: Replaced Dalbert late and looked fine, but wasn’t on the pitch long enough to really leave an impression.
Three things we learned
1. 4-3-3 is how this team should play. The 3-5-2 was very successful for a brief spate of matches, but opponents have figured it out. The inverted wingers here allowed the fullbacks to get forward and create overloads out wide; Venuti in particular looked lethal.. Benassi and Castrovilli’s late runs in through the middle were more than adequate in replacing another central attacker. Now imagine if it were Federico Chiesa and Franck Ribery on the wings instead of Ghezzal and Sottil. The extra runners from deep made a huge difference, even after the Viola were down a man. With Ghezzal often moving central and deep as Ribery would, it’s clear that this is a replicable system.
2. Montella remains as stubborn as ever. The mister deserves praise for sticking to his guns tactically—he knows more about strategy on the pitch than anyone reading this—but his rotations are a cause for concern. Sacrificing Sottil may have turned out to be the right decision, but the youngster was far more threatening than Ghezzal in the early going. Meanwhile, Pedro and Szymon Żurkowski are rotting on the bench and, according to various reports, getting very frustrated with their lack of time. When you’re up 2-0 to a Serie B team, even down a man, the priority really ought to be getting these end-of-the-bench options a chance to prove themselves.
3. It may be buried way down there, but we finally glimpsed some grinta in this Viola side. All year long, Fiorentina have been a finesse team, the sort that can produce spells of gorgeous passing football, but that lacks an edge in the box. Today, we saw that team roll up its sleeves and get ugly, spoiling things in the middle and blazing down the flanks on the counter. The defense displayed some badly-needed nastiness, matching and overmatching Cittadella’s physicality. With the caveat that it came against a Serie B team, maybe this is the Fiorentina that we’ve been waiting for: an absolute predator in Benassi who can punish any mistake in marking supported by attackers who can beat a man and then do something with the space they’ve made. This is more or less what Stefano Pioli tried to do; while it may not be a long-term solution, there are lessons in mindset to be learned, and maybe even in method.