SPAL manager Leonardo Semplici set out his usual 3-5-2 formation. Fiorentina boss Stefano Pioli surprised most viewers by bringing Gerson into the side at the expense of Giovanni Simeone, with the Brazilian ostensibly stationed on the wing. This is a good time to mention that the home support was quite impressive, showing off a massive tifo and turning the entire Paolo Mazza blue and white.
The visitors came roaring out the gates, nearly taking the lead after all of 19 seconds after Federico Chiesa drove down the right and crossed from the touchline: all three of , Luis Muriel, Gerson, and Cristiano Biraghi were within centimeters of it, but Manuel Lazzari did exactly enough to prevent anyone reaching it. 5 minutes later, Chiesa combined nicely with Gerson and Biraghi before laying it off for Jordan Veretout, whose tightly-angled shot nearly trickled under Emiliano Viviano but was eventually cleared off the line. After 9 minutes, Gerson drove into the area from the right and uncorked a drive that forced Viviano into a smart kick-save. SPAL didn’t even get into the Viola half until the 14th minute, but Mirko Valdifiori’s weak shot following a Biancazzurri corner was well off the mark.
The game remained tilted heavily in a Viola direction, though, with Chiesa and Gerson acting as the primary creators. Fede in particular had a couple of half chances, including one off a lovely Biraghi cross, but couldn’t bring them under control. The next real chance, though, fell to the hosts after 27 minutes: the Fiorentina defense completely switched off and let Jasmin Kurtić streak unmarked down the left, but Federico Ceccherini (who’d left him on to start with) came across well to snuff out his pass to Mirco Antenucci with the SPAL striker all alone in front of the net. 4 minutes later, Antenucci had another chance when Alban Lafont passed the ball straight to him out from the back, but Nikola Milenković got a block in to save his goalkeeper’s bacon.
3 minutes later, it was the visitors who came close. First, Chiesa went to ground in the area under pressure from three defenders; while there was certainly some contact, it probably wasn’t a penalty. Fiorentina kept the ball, though, and swung it across to Biraghi, who teed up a flawless cross to Muriel. The Colombian volleyed at goal from 5 yards out only to see his effort ricochet off the bar and back out. 3 minutes later, SPAL made Fiorentina pay for their profligacy. A terrible back pass from Vitor Hugo hung Biraghi out to dry, allowing Antenucci to steal in and cross for Andrea Petagna. Milenković blocked it, but only as far as Valdifiori, who fired from the edge of the area. Lafont got down smartly to stop it, but Petagna was on hand and completely alone to turn the rebound into the net and hand the Estensi a rather undeserved lead.
The Viola didn’t give up, though, and kept finding space to run into. Chiesa had a drive from a tight angle that whistled wide of the back post, although he may have been passing for Gerson, who was a bit late to arrive. A minute before half time, though, the pressure finally told: Biraghi slipped Gerson through, and the AS Roma loanee drew 3 defenders before cutting it to the fullback. Biraghi thought about a shot but instead laid it off to a late-arriving Edimilson Fernandes, whose first time shot with his left never stopped rising as it nearly ripped the back of the net off, leaving Viviano with absolutely no chance. It was an unbelievably good goal from the team, and particularly from Edi. The Swiss midfielder had another swing in stoppage time after Gerson and Chiesa set him up, but this one was well over the bar.
The second half started a bit more cagily than the first, but Fiorentina remained firmly in the catbird seat, mostly due to Chiesa. A pair of teasing crosses at 51’ both found Benassi in the area, but the midfielder couldn’t quite latch onto either. Not long after, Fede produced a mixtape turn that left Mohamed Fares for dead around midfield and drove into the box before finding Benassi again, but the shot was blocked out. At the hour mark, the Viola manufactured 3 half-chances: first Muriel slipped Chiesa through the middle, forcing Thiago Cionek into a desperate tackle in the area to poke it away, but only as far as Gerson, who cut in from the right and blasted one towards goal that deflected out for a corner; from that corner, Benassi guided a chip over the top for Fede, whose angled shot scorched the side netting. Despite looking frisky and keeping SPAL under control, the goal just wasn’t coming. At 70’, Muriel latched onto a long ball and forced Felipe to flail at him in the box, but the defender did just enough to put the striker off his shot. 3 minutes later, the crazy began.
Muriel rode a bad challenge in midfield and played Chiesa down the left. Fede burned by Cionek and got to the touchline to cut the ball back; after his pass, though, Felipe dangerously stomped his ankle. Referee Luca Pairetto didn’t call for the penalty, though, and SPAL broke down the right. Fares edged past Laurini and whipped in a cross that dropped to a completely-unmarked Mattia Valoti on the back post; the former Juventus midfielder sidefooted into the back of the net and peeled off to celebrate. Pairetto, however, called on VAR to check the foul at the other end, and after 5 minutes awarded the spot kick to Fiorentina. Jordan Veretout duly spanked it home, but the SPAL players and supporters were understandably furious, as they’d gone from 2-1 up to 1-2 down due to the referee’s discretion.
A minute later, Giovanni Simeone doubled the Viola advantage. SPAL sent up everyone for a corner and Fiorentina cleared. The ball dropped for Cholito inside his own half, and he motored unchecked all the way into the opposing box, shrugging off a Kevin Bonifazi challenge, before powering his shot past Viviano and just inside the post. That left the Biancazzuri even more stunned and looking for someone to blame as Pioli raced to embrace his striker and the away support lost their minds.
With the wind completely out of their sails, SPAL pushed up but never really looked like scoring. In fact, they left so much space at the back that it was the visitors who always looked more like adding another. Dabo galloped forward off another Estensi corner and laid it to Muriel, but a brilliant slide by Alessandro Murgia denied Simeone another chance from the layoff. Lafont made a nice claim ahead of an onrushing Antenucci at 87’, but it was indeed the Viola who struck next a minute later. Gerson pushed high up and dispossed Valoti before jogging forward and coolly slotting the ball home with his left, and that was pretty well that, although full credit to the home fans for applauding their team for the final three minutes.
Okay, so the decision was correct. Felipe undoubtedly fouled Chiesa in the area with a bit of very dangerous play, and Pairetto did the right thing to play on and let VAR sort it out. However, the length of the advantage and its end result in a goal for SPAL, who thought they’d taken the lead only to see VAR (run by old friend Paolo Mazzoleni) basically award a goal at the opposite end. The delay must have been infuriating, but again, the penalty was the correct decision. That doesn’t make it any less wrenching for the Estensi, though.
On the other hand, Fiorentina were clearly the better team. Chiesa and Gerson were lethal driving forward into space all day. The defense was a bit ragged in the absence of Germán Pezzella, often leaving gaps at the back, but should improve with more time spent practicing together. It’d better: with Atalanta (twice), Inter Milan, and Lazio coming up, this is perhaps the stretch of the season most crucial in determining whether or not the Viola will push for the Europa League.
Lafont: 6—Another very Alban performance. Made a couple of sharp stops and a truly hideous error that should have resulted in a SPAL goal. Again, these are the kinds of hiccups you expect from a young goalkeeper, but it sure would be nice if he’d sort them sooner rather than later.
Ceccherini: 6—His failure to step up and easily put Kurtić offside before the half hour was really bad, although he got back well to correct his mistake. Solid otherwise.
Milenković: 6.5—Clearly doesn’t know how to organize his defense like Pezzella, but provided a good, physical presence and swept up well. Definitely needs a more experienced player next to him to help him adjust his positioning, though. Again, you do expect a few bumps with a young player, and the Mountain was quite solid despite them.
Vitor Hugo: 4.5—That backpass was indescribably bad and will surely result in some unimpressed pundits, but the Brazilian seemed a bit shaky all day, both in possession and with his decision-making on the back foot. He’s another who misses Pezzella.
Biraghi: 7—A constant threat going forward and created at least five chances with his excellent crossing. Should have gotten two assists, but Muriel’s shot instead whacked the bar. Had a bit more trouble at the back, but his attacking contributions more than made up for it.
Benassi: 5.5—Popped up in the box several times but never sorted his shooting boots out. Played a couple of decent passes forward and rumbled around on defense, but this wasn’t one of his better games.
Veretout: 7—Brilliantly took the penalty and grafted his way around the middle of the park all day, although he did have one or two uncharacteristically bad touches. Still, did well to drive play forward and control the center.
Fernandes: 7—Battled well in the middle, using his strength to overpower the opposing midfielders and keep SPAL pinned back. Because he’s Edi, got booked for a stupid challenge, but cleaned up his passing a bit today. And holy smokes was that an obscenely good strike.
Chiesa: 8.5—Won’t be credited with a goal or an assist but absolutely ran the show. Made brilliant decisions with the ball, whipped in a steady stream of dangerous crosses, found space to operate in, beat his man with ease, won a penalty, and generally made SPAL look helpless. He’s so damn good.
Muriel: 5.5—Bit quiet from the Colombian today, aside from crashing one off the bar. Never seemed to find space in behind but did do a very neat job of drawing the defenders to him, freeing up space for Chiesa and Gerson.
Gerson: 7.5—Probably his best showing in a Viola shirt. Won fouls, drove forward in possession, showcased safe and clever passing, pressed very well, and was eventually rewarded with his second goal of the season. Seems to be slowly finding his rhythm and his best position.
Laurini: 5—Didn’t do too much, but let Fares by him far to easily to cross for what everyone thought was SPAL’s second goal.
Simeone: 7—This is the Cholito that was promised. Always looked to find space and run into the gaps in the defense, and scored a peach of a goal. Could have had another one or two as well, although it’s a lot easier to find space agains
Dabo: 6—Solidified the midfield and completely shut down everything SPAL tried to run through the center. Also went on one of his trademark rampages forward, although it didn’t end in a goal. Can he please get 90 minutes in the middle some time soon? Please?