Expectations were riding high in the Fiorentina camp after a thumping of AS Roma, but there was a bit of trepidation when Stefano Pioli revealed his XI, as it was the exact same guys who’d started in the midweek fixture, with the exception of Gerson replacing the suspended Marco Benassi. This seemed like a good chance to rotate some players and bring the likes of Bryan Dabo into the fold.
For the hosts, it was a bit strange. Manager Davide Nicola handed starts to a pair of ex-Viola players in Valon Behrami and Sebastien de Maio, but the major talking point was the Udinese tifosi, who before the match stated their intention to stay silent after kickoff to protest ticket prices and their team’s performance. For much of the match, it was the away support that was far more vocal, although the home fans eventually gave way and got a bit rowdier. Still, though, the atmosphere just felt odd.
The visitors began as the livelier of the two, with Luis Muriel doing well to win a 4th minute corner despite being marked by a pair of larger defenders on a cross. The corner, though, came to nothing as Jordan Veretout absolutely skied a follow-up volley. 3 minutes later, Rodrigo de Paul drove down the right, but Vincent Laurini did well to block his cross and it rolled harmlessly to Alban Lafont. The next chance also fell to the hosts as de Paul played in Marco d’Alessandro through the middle, but Germán Pezzella shut that right down. In the 13th minute, as both sets of fans cheered Davide Astori, de Paul should have opened the scoring, slaloming past Nikola Milenković—who was beaten way too easily—and poking one towards Lafont’s back post that rolled agonizingly close with the keeper beaten.
Udinese continued to threaten on the break as the Viola midfield—mostly Gerson and Edimilson Fernandes—displayed maddening creativity in losing the ball in the dumbest possible ways. Federico Chiesa began to get involved at this point, though, going on a couple of trademark marauding runs down the right that left the Zebrette backline looking nervous. Luis Muriel found himself in acres of space in the box to head a Fernandes cross at at 23’ but put it well off target with little power, earning a few whistles from the home fans. It was Pezzella, though, who was denied the opener by an incredible Juan Musso reflex save with a bullet header from a corner.
Right on the half hour mark, de Maio literally punched Chiesa in the face as they jockeyed for position on a high ball just outside the area, but referee Daniele Orsato inexplicably refused to blow the whistle, despite having to stop play and having time to review things. The Viola were starting to control things nicely, though, as Muriel dropped deep to help overload the midfield, but none of the half-chances ever turned into full chances. In fact, the hosts came close at 40’ through Ignacio Pussetto, who nicely controlled a chipped pass from de Paul in the area after Cristiano Biraghi lost the ball in the sun, but the Uruguayan’s angled shot only found the side netting. Moments later, Rolando Mandragora did his level best to amputate Pezzella’s foot at the ankle and was justly booked, and that was the last real action in a stupefyingly boring half of football.
Pioli gave the invisible Kevin Mirallas the hook at the half and introduced Giovanni Simeone. Whatever the mister had told his charges in the dressing room seemed to have worked, as they started passing the ball around much more quickly, causing Udinese some problems but still not finding the final product. As they piled up another corner at 56’, though, disaster struck. Biraghi cut the corner back to Veretout, whose intention was to take a touch and shoot from outside the area. That touch, though, was sub-Sunday League quality and Udinese pounced, surging upfield on a 3-v-1 counter. Poor Vincent Laurini actually did a heck of a job to get a boot to Pussetto’s cross, but the deflection looped the ball to the back post, where it was met by a sliding Jens Stryger Larsen to turn it into the Viola net despite a desperate dive from Lafont. Just like that, it was 1-0 and the crowd was suddenly interested again.
Pioli didn’t wait long to shuffle his deck, bringing on Marko Pjaca for the ineffectual Gerson. Two minutes later, Cholito did well to bulldoze his way up the right side, but nobody ran with him in support and his shot from a tight angle didn’t trouble Musso too much. At 65’, though, Fiorentina equalized in the unlikeliest of fashions. Muriel popped a shot from 30 meters out that was blocked, but the ball bounced to Fernandes on the edge of the box. The Swiss midfielder took a touch and unleashed a scorcher along the grass that lanced through the box and landed just inside Musso’s far post; it was an unstoppable first goal for the embattled youngster. 5 minutes later, he led a break, roaring 20 meters up the pitch before his exchange with Pjaca went wrong and wasted a numerical advantage.
With 15 minutes left, a visibly gassed Chiesa nearly found the winner, reacting quickest to another deflection from a corner that dropped about 8 meters from goal. Fede blasted straight at Musso on the angle, then smashed the rebound wide; while it could have worked, putting the ball across the face of goal might have been the better option. 7 minutes later, Chiesa came painfully close again, this time with an acrobatic header that cleared the bar by about an inch at the back post from a Muriel cross. The Friulians, clearly content with a point, shut down shop, but Federico Ceccherini nearly made them pay at the death with a Zlatanesque flick from a corner that almost caught Musso out. When the whistle went, though, spoils shared felt fair on the balance of play.
This was 90 minutes of drudgery and it’s hard not to blame Pioli. He had plenty of time to figure out how to beat an opponent that was never going to play as high a line as Roma, and the mister fell completely flat. Too, his refusal to rotate the squad at all (hi, Bryan Dabo) led to some obviously tired legs in the second half, which is when the team should have been circling for the kill. Sure, the goal was a bit of a freak mistake by Veretout, but Udinese made plenty of chances, and Fiorentina weren’t even secure at the back due to the mister’s moving Nikola back and forth.
I’m not sure what the best solution would have been to Udinese’s very deep backline, compact shape, and midfield shithousery. The Viola lack a player who can find the creases in a deep defense or force the defense out to close down a shot from distance, and they also lack a real target man to whom they can loft high balls and create mayhem in the area. However, Fiorentina were toothless and confused, frequently losing the ball under no pressure and handing the initiative to their hosts. With Napoli and their high line coming to town next week, perhaps we’ll see the Viola play like they did against Roma. But after watching this performance, it’s mighty hard to give that any credence. Pioli has to do better.
Lafont: 6.5—Didn’t have too much to do in terms of shot stopping; the goal wasn’t on him at all. He was better at claiming crosses than usual today and showed off some impressive distribution, in particular with a long pass that switched play in a way that would have made David Pizarro proud.
Laurini: 5.5—He’s game as hell but struggled a bit with the trickiness of de Paul, Pussetto, and d’Alessandro. All of Udinese’s best chances came from his side, although that wasn’t entirely on him. Did provide a comical highlight while grappling with the much larger Stefano Okaka late in the match.
Pezzella: 6.5—Very solid from the captain. Broke up everything that came his way, very nearly scored on the other end, and kept going after taking a punishing boot from Mandragora. Docked half a point for not sorting out the issues with Milenković, leading to a lot of unnecessary consternation back there.
Milenković: 5—Struggled badly. Beaten easily by de Paul and looked nervous when played on the left. Settled in a bit more on the right once he switched, but Pioli switched him around several times. Not sure if this was due to the adjustment to playing in the middle or just a bad match or what, but it wasn’t pretty. Misses next week against Napoli for yellow card accumulation.
Biraghi: 6.5—Locked down his side of the pitch defensively and provided a few clever crosses into the area, although none of them paid dividends. A big, aerially imposing striker to target would make him an absolute terror, but we’ll settle for quietly competent.
Gerson: 4.5—Not sure who filled his boots with concrete, but it wasn’t a good joke at all. Couldn’t pass, couldn’t dribble, and didn’t influence the game at all. Feel like he has one of these every 6 weeks or so, but bounces back afterwards.
Veretout: 4.5—Not great from the Frenchman. The mistake for the Udinese goal was the most obvious, but he took a bunch of terrible shots and didn’t move the ball around well enough, letting the Zebrette bunker back. No surprise that the midfield looked lost without him.
Fernandes: 7—The goal was utterly fantastic, the type that would require significant clean-up if it was Ray Hudson calling a Messi strike. Thrilled that Edi finally got off the mark. That said, he was quite bad otherwise, losing possession in new and infuriating ways seemingly every time he touched the ball.
Chiesa: 7—Despite some tired legs, he marched up and down the right wing and always looked the most dangerous player on the pitch. Had a lot of trouble getting past Bram Nuytinck, of all people, but was nevertheless Fiorentina’s only chance of a breakthrough. Came close a couple of times, too, but was just barely off.
Muriel: 6—A couple of useful flicks and a brilliant cross to Chiesa aren’t enough to cancel out the whiffed free header and the lack of any real threat to the goal. Not nearly as effective when trying to carve his way through a packed-in defense as he is when running in space.
Mirallas: 4—Not sure he even touched the ball in that first half.
Simeone: 6—Charged around like a madman, as per usual, and certainly looked like an improvement over Mirallas. Not the type to win a bunch of physical battles against bigger opponents, so it’s hard to hold that against him.
Pjaca: 4—Really could have jump started his season here and instead played exactly how he’s played otherwise. When you combine the willingness to take on your defender with an inability to get by that defender, you’ve got a recipe for frustration.
Ceccherini: n/a—Would have been the hero if he’d scored, but didn’t really do much while he was out there otherwise.