Stefano Pioli was dealt a major blow as Nikola Milenković wound up unavailable with a bout of flu; Federico Ceccherini and Vincent Laurini thus comprised the right side of the defense. Giovanni Simeone drew the start at striker, with Luis Muriel on the bench in an attempt to save his legs for an important midweek clash against Atalanta.
For Inter Milan, young Dalbert started at leftback with former Viola man Matías Vecino in central midfield. Due to the ongoing word-slinging, Mauro Icardi wasn’t called up, leaving Lautaro Martínez as the only option Luciano Spalletti had at striker with Keita Baldé injured.
On a chilly, clear windy day, the Stadio Artemio Franchi was packed and rocking. The tifosi (including VN regular Hesanka and Indonesian superfan Eric Hartanto) were clearly up to the task, drowning out the visiting support and singing their love for the hosts for well over 90 minutes.
Fiorentina scored almost direct from kickoff: the ball came back to Ceccherini, who launched it over the Inter backline. Federico Chiesa outraced the entire Biscione defense to the ball down the right wing. Samir Handanović came way off his line and Fede simply squared the ball to an onrushing Giovanni Simeone, who took a touch goalwards. The ball deflected off Stefan de Vrij and into the back of the net with 16 seconds showing on the clock. While it would eventually be marked an own goal, it was still a stunning start to the match.
The Viola didn’t have long to enjoy their superiority, though, as Inter equalized 5 minutes later. Failure to clear a corner left the ball with Radja Nainggolan outside the area, and the Belgian lobbed it back into the area, where Vecino (precisely even with the last man) volleyed it past Alban Lafont, who got both hands to it but still couldn’t palm it away. The Uruguayan declined to celebrate in deference to his former employer, but the rest of the team was thrilled.
Fiorentina resumed pressing, though, and seemed the more dangerous team. Vitor Hugo met a corner at 10’ but couldn’t keep it on frame. 6 minutes later, Simeone produced a brilliant turn outside the area and chipped the ball over the defense for Federico Chiesa, who was tripped up and hit the ground. The ball dropped on top of him, leading the Inter defense to scream for a handball, but Marco Benassi nearly pounced, and only a desperate Milan Škriniar block kept him from shooting. It was all the hosts, though, as their brilliant pressing in midfield locked the visitors into their own half with no escape. While the attackers—particularly Chiesa, Simeone, and Biraghi—created a succession of half chances, there wasn’t a real opportunity until just before the half hour, when Gerson led a 3-v-2 break forward with the ball. The defense neglected to close him down at all and he hit a powerful try with his left that skidded off target from the top of the box, even though Simeone was all alone to his right and begging for the pass.
At 36’, Lafont made a sharp save as Marcelo Brozović overhit a free kick from the wing that nearly drifted under the bar, forcing the young Frenchman to smartly palm over. 4 minutes later, though, Inter took the lead against the run of play: Matteo Politano picked up the ball on the right wing and cut inside and past Jordan Veretout, who should have known that the winger would cut in, then unleashed a bullet that nestled inside the far post. Lafont again got a touch, but seemed slow to react, perhaps because Gerson blocked his view. Gerson had another chance at 43’ but couldn’t keep his volley down after a clever chip from Chiesa, but it was Ivan Perišić who came closest after Ceccherini made a mistake and let Martínez slide the Croatian in, but his shot was just off frame when 1-v-1 with Lafont. Fede had another try with a curler from outside the area off a clever free kick routine, but the half ended with the Nerazzurri leading 1-2 despite being outplayed for most of the first half.
Inter won a soft free kick on the wing 2 minutes after the restart, but Fiorentina cleared it and went roaring upfield before referee Rosario Abisso brought it back to check VAR for an incident in the area. Sure enough, he awarded a penalty that surprised even the Inter players, as Edimilson Fernandes struck the ball with his hand in the area. In fairness, it had deflected off someone just before it hit him and he was in the air and being jostled from behind, hence his arms coming up, but Abisso went ahead and gave the spot kick, which Perišić converted. Inter had a commanding 1-3 lead, despite the howls of fury from the stands.
The game rather slowed down for the next 10ish minutes, but the introduction of Muriel (who entered along with Marko Pjaca) turned things around. At the hour mark, Chiesa and Veretout combined to cross for the Colombian, who mistimed his shot and caught Danilo d’Ambrosio. The ball skipped out to Cristiano Biraghi, who smashed a first time shot that nearly ripped the net from the posts. Abisso, however, brought it back to VAR again, and eventually ruled the goal out due to Muriel catching d’Ambrosio in the buildup; the Franchi responded with jeers, whistles, and venom, and it’s not hard to see why.
The players answered by getting chippier and chippier, with a number of hard fouls and harsh words. Chiesa, meanwhile, tried a 40-yard lob but couldn’t get it anywhere near the goal at 68’, but did better 4 minutes later when his pop from distance took a big deflection off de Vrij and nearly rolled in at the far post past a scrambling Handanović’s far post. 2 minutes after that, though, the Slovenian goalkeeper was left helpless as Muriel hit a free kick from over 30 yards out as perfectly as a free kick can possibly be hit: with power, swerve, and dip, and into the very top corner. It was perhaps the best goal Fiorentina have scored this year, and it brought them back to 2-3 to set up a very tense 15 minutes.
A minute later, Vecino nearly headed home his second as the defense switched off after kickoff, but he couldn’t get it anywhere but straight at Lafont. Fiorentina, fueled by a furious Franchi, pushed forward and came close a few times in the closing minutes, including a free kick that nearly dropped for Fernandes before de Vrij poked it out for a corner and, more importantly, a Chiesa bomb from the left that whistled a whisker wide of the back post (there were 4 men in the box, so a cross may have been wiser), but there was drama at the other end too: Vitor Hugo stonewalled Martínez in the box and the striker spent the next several minutes rolling around holding his face, leading Lafont to walk over and yank him to his feet. The goalie was carded for his frustration, but the striker may have got away with one too, as he batted at Alban’s face.
Abisso meted out a whopping 7 minutes of stoppage time, and Inter nearly doubled their lead at the beginning of it as Bryan Dabo and Ceccherini miscommunicated, allowing Borja Valero to steal in and lay it through for Perišić, but Cecche recovered well enough to block the Croatian’s shot. At the 96 minute mark, though, all hell broke loose: Chiesa dinked a ball into the area that hit d’Ambrosio’s chest and maybe took the slightest of touches off the defender’s arm. Abisso pointed to the spot, but then went to VAR. Replays made it clear that no PK should have been give: d’Ambrosio’s arms were in, he was too close to react to the ball, and it was clearly accidental. Nevertheless, Abisso stuck with his original decision after review, and an ice-cold Veretout slotted the penalty home in the 100th minute to equalize. Scenes ensued.
Inter Milan will be rightfully angry about the late penalty, but they certainly got lucky twice previously with VAR checks, so it feels more or less balanced out in the end (and let’s not forget the phantom handball called on Vitor Hugo in the away fixture that gave Inter a nothingburger penalty). That said, this match highlighted how uneven the use of VAR has been this year, and the shambolic nature of that application is something that Serie A needs to fix right now. The Viola have been at the center of various controversies involving the replay system this year: this, SPAL last week, Inter at the San Siro, Chievo Verona getting bilked last month, the clear Chiesa dive against Atalanta, and a questionable penalty against AS Roma. That’s a full quarter of Fiorentina’s matches that have featured misuse or simply wrong decisions based on VAR.
Returning to the action on the pitch, let’s give Stefano Pioli full credit. The first half was brilliant: his decision to push Vitor Hugo up the pitch in possession, forcing Martínez to mark the Brazilian and leave Ceccherini completely free and very deep as a safe passing option, and the ex-Livorno man was brilliant in passing the ball through the lines to the midfielders. The midfielders and forwards pressed magnificently and created chances; the fact that his players couldn’t turn a single shot on frame from open play isn’t entirely on him, and neither is the failure to step up from the back and let Vecino’s header in, as you have to think that with Germán Pezzella marshaling the backline would have prevented it. All in all, a point feels like a fair result on the balance of play, even if it drops the team to 9th.
Lafont: 5—Made a good stop or two, but you have to think he was a bit slow to react on both goals. The fact that he got a hand to each of the first two is a bit frustrating as well. On the plus side, he made good decisions, came off his line when appropriate, and kept his distribution safe and occasionally penetrative.
Laurini: 6.5—Stuck with Perišić very well and didn’t let the in-form winger get anything on his watch, and also nullified Dalbert when the fullback got forward. Also added a bit going forward, overlapping and combining cleverly with Chiesa a few times. A rather limited player, but very good when given a simple brief.
Ceccherini: 6.5—Was brilliant in the first half, controlling the game with his excellent passing. Made a couple of slips at the back throughout, but showed surprisingly good pace to recover for the most time. He’s really growing into a solid starter at this level and seems more than capable as a fill-in for Pezze.
Vitor Hugo: 7.5—Ate Lautaro Martínez’ lunch for the entire 90 (100?) minutes, rarely allowing the young striker a sniff of the ball. Added physicality and grit to the backline and did well to get up the pitch and challenge when the midfield let someone through. Still had one of his trademark skewed clearances, but was very good.
Biraghi: 7.5—Clearly had an agenda against his former team and was brilliant throughout, getting forward tirelessly on the overlap and putting in a succession of excellent crosses. Mostly did well against Politano on the back foot as well, although he was pinned by d’Ambrosio for the goal, leaving Veretout stranded against a quicker opponent.
Benassi: 5.5—Had a couple of nice combinations with Chiesa and kept his passing pretty sharp, but was a liability at the back and didn’t provide much of a goal threat against the team he grew up with. Felt like a very Marco game, though, in that you kept waiting for him to pop up with a weird goal.
Veretout: 6—Let Politano cut inside way too easily, given how left-footed the winger is, but was quite good besides that. Mostly kept Nainggolan very quiet and sparked the attack nicely. Had a lot of trouble with his set piece delivery, though, failing to get the ball past the first man on a number of corners, but the stiff breeze may have been partly responsible.
Fernandes: 5—While the penalty probably wasn’t entirely his fault, given the push in the back he took, he still produced his usual stream of misplaced passes and poorly considered attempts to dribble. On the plus side, he pressured Vecino in particular very well and helped control the midfield for long stretches.
Chiesa: 8—As is par for the course at this point, he was the game’s outstanding player. Skipped past challenges at will, bamboozled defenders with his pace, and brought his teammates into the game brilliantly. He’s going to learn how to keep those shots that whistle just wide or over on frame some time soon, and he’s going to be terrifying.
Simeone: 7—Played with some fire, furiously charging forward and pressuring a nervous defense like his pants were on fire. Showed more skill on the ball than we’re used to seeing and contributed a bit to the buildup at times, which shows growth. Unlucky that the opener was ruled an own goal, but may be starting to round back into form.
Gerson: 5—Wasn’t bad, exactly, but it felt like none of his efforts quite came off, even when they were very close. Really should have laid that shot off to Cholito, but had a bunch of nearly moments. On another day, at least one positive would have risen from all those almosts. He’ll be fine.
Muriel: 7.5—Oh my god that goal. I guess he only scores Sportscenter Top 10 efforts. Holy smokes, y'all.
Pjaca: 4—Invisible. Maybe he’s wearing number 10 because that’s how many men it feels like are on the pitch when he’s out there. Starting to feel more and more like it’s just not happening for him this year.
Dabo: 5—Shoehorned into an unfamiliar rightback role in relief of Laurini, he offered some typically muscular bursts forward but almost threw everything away with a miscommunication at the back in stoppage time before the penalty.