Absent both Federico Chiesa (groin), Germán Pezzella (suspension), and Edimilson Fernandes (suspension), Stefano Pioli brought Vincent Laurini into the defense and trotted out a trident of Luis Muriel, Giovanni Simeone, and Kevin Mirallas, which meant that Gerson dropped into midfield. Marco Benassi was picked as captain against the side that he used to captain himself. Walter Mazzarri picked Iago Falque up top instead of Simone Zaza and opted for youngster Saša Lukić over Soualiho Meïté in midfield.
The day was quite warm, leading to some clearly tired legs later on as the players dealt with the first real heat of the year thus far. The bigger issue, though, was the return of Fiorentina legend Gabriel Omar Batistuta to the city that loves him for a belated birthday celebration. The fans were thrilled to have their idol back, and Batigol hosted a 6000 person celebration in the Piazza della Signoria after the match.
La familia de Batistuta, entre lágrimas, subió al escenario y vivió en primera persona el terrible homenaje al goleador argentino en Florencia. pic.twitter.com/gMPlgO6dcZ— SportsCenter (@SC_ESPN) March 31, 2019
Fiorentina emerged from the tunnel and dominated from the word go despite the absence of Chiesa, with Cholito particularly involved in the buildup play. After coming close in the 4th minute through Benassi and Simeone in close succession—Salvatore Sirigu made a brilliant stop on the midfielder’s drive and then palmed away the striker’s flicked header—Cholito opened the scoring brilliantly 3 minutes later. Vitor Hugo stepped into midfield to smash a clearing header forward, and Giovanni, in behind the entire defense except for Cristian Ansaldi (who was dawdling 10 yards behind the rest of the line), had the easiest of jobs to bring the ball down, round Sirigu, and roll it into the empty net.
After the first quarter hour, though, Fiorentina began the usual “go up early and then retreat into their own box” routine, and Torino duly took control of the match. At 18’, Ansaldi put in a long, fast cross that found 3 Granata players in the box, but they got in each other’s way and couldn’t get it on frame. Daniele Baselli had a wild shot moments later, but (after a Muriel brain fart snuffed out a promising counter), the Turin outfit appealed for a penalty after Vitor Hugo and Andrea Belotti got tangled up on a low Tomás Rincón cross that referee Fabrizio Pasqua waved away. Pasqua, in fact, waved away most of everything, letting the match devolve into a physical contest that wouldn’t have felt out of place the second division in the 1980s.
In fact, at 34’, Pasqua ignored a very obvious handball on Koffi Djidji as he battled Simeone in the area, refusing to even check VAR. Naturally, Torino scored off the play, with Iago Falque laying off to Baselli, who lanced an unstoppable drive into the top corner, leaving Lafont with no chance. Just like that, Fiorentina were back to even. The Viola took back the momentum, with Simeone missing a 1-v-1 with a lackadaisical chip attempt after a glorious pass from Muriel sent him through and Sirigu making yet another jaw-dropping stop on another Benassi shot, and Fiorentina went into the break with a 1-1 scoreline despite creating half a dozen brilliant chances.
5 minutes after the restart, Mirallas had a chance to snatch the lead, but a heavy touch in the box let Ansaldi get the covering block in. 7 minutes later, Muriel and Simeone combined brilliantly on the counter to give the Belgian a shot from close range, albeit from a tight angle, and he couldn’t get his attempt on target; a cutback may have been the better decision. Muriel tried again at the hour mark, flashing a venomous low drive just wide of Sirigu’s post.
At the hour mark, though, we got some comedy. Ansaldi saw Lafont way off his line and took a free kick in his own half quickly, trying to loft it into the net. While the shot was narrowly wide, the goalkeeper’s panicked retreat carried him into his own net with such force that he ripped it away from the crossbar, necessitating a break while the groundsman taped it back to the woodwork.
After half chances for Zaza, Simeone, and Simeone again, large teen Dušan Vlahović nearly scored his first top-tier goal with an audacious overhead kick that fizzed wide of the post. Pioli handed ballyhooed Primavera star Tòfol Montiel a competitive debut for the final 5 minutes, though, and the little Spaniard nearly stole the show. His first action was a run from inside his own half to the edge of the box and a shot that ripped over. 2 minutes later, he teased in a cross which Vlahović headed wide, although the big guy probably shouldn’t have jumped into Simeone, who was better positioned. Vlahović nearly made amends in stoppage time, though, neatly laying a pass off for Biraghi, whose angled shot nearly wormed past a surprised Sirigu; Montiel latched onto the rebound outside the area and threaded a clever pass through for Vlahović, but the teenager’s shot was blocked out for a corner, and the match was over.
On the one hand, you have to give full credit to Pioli here. Missing his two most important players in attack and defense, his team took 23 shots and put 8 on target while limiting Torino to 10 and 3, respectively. Only a season-best performance from the Italian national team’s starting goalkeeper and a wonder strike from Baselli kept this from being a win. Plus, we got to see Montiel and Vlahović link up a couple of times for a fun glimpse of the future.
On the other hand, a league-leading 14th draw is mighty frustrating and means that about half of the results Pioli has managed in Serie A this year have ended with a single point. More frustrating, though, was the way it all played out: Fiorentina took an early lead for what felt like the 20th time this year then tried to shut up shop for the remaining 83 minutes, inviting way too much pressure and letting their opponent back into the match. While this individual result isn’t terrible in a vacuum, it’s a perfect microcosm of Fiorentina’s season and, in the context of the previous 28 games, it’s a pretty big letdown.
Lafont: 6—Didn’t have much to do. The Baselli goal was so perfectly hit that not a keeper ever born would have had a chance on it, and his other saves were quite routine. Extra credit to Alban for trying to find a way to entertain the fans in a boring slog of a match by getting tangled with the net.
Laurini: 6—Helped keep Belotti and Zaza very quiet and played his usual unfussy, efficient game. Offered nothing going forward, but that’s not really what we expect from him anyways. Remains a solid, limited, and useful veteran presence.
Milenković: 7.5—Hopefully snapped out of his months-long funk, as he was quite good in tracking everyone who came into his area. Bodied the in-form Belotti into the turf early with a judicious hip check and kept il Gallo in his pocket for the rest of the match, and also did well sweeping up behind when necessary.
Vitor Hugo: 6.5—Loved the, er, assist (again, it was a thumping headed clearance), but he was solid elsewhere too. Struggled a bit with the tricky Falque, but was mostly pretty stout at the back and stood strong. Did manage his now-familiar skewed clearance, too, which has almost come back around to being an endearing thing that he always does.
Biraghi: 7—Tireless on the overlap and provided some very good passes, including a lofted 60-yard touch pass that hit Simeone in stride. Also did brilliantly getting forward to press high up the pitch and win the ball around Torino’s box a few times, but also got back to help with Falque. Just a good all-around game from the Italy international.
Benassi: 6.5—Not a bad game at all for Marco. Played a few nice passes in for Cholito that sliced open the defense and took two shots that, on another day, would have seen the goalkeeper picking the ball out of the net. Battled Lukić and Baselli well in the middle, but had trouble with Rincón’s physicality. Still, a positive performance from the man with the armband.
Veretout: 7—Must have lungs made of leather and brass, as he chuffed all over the pitch like a dynamo. Aside from the wondergoal, kept Baselli in check and scrapped with Rincón and Lukić well, while also playing some good passes through the lines. Would look world-class with a real passing midfielder next to him.
Gerson: 5—Started well, winning fouls and digging in impressively to win the ball a few times, but was kicked out of the match as Pasqua ignored a succession of very heavy challenges on him that would have seen a competent ref start handing out cards. Still, even when the ref’s against you, you’ve got to buck up, and Gerson went into his shell instead.
Mirallas: 5.5—Invisible in the first half, but came alive afterwards with a few useful crosses and a couple of chances that he probably should have at least gotten on frame. Despite the misses, though, his discipline in staying very wide in possession opened up a lot of space for Muriel and Simeone to exploit, so the invisibility was, in some ways, the result of footballing intelligence rather than poor play.
Simeone: 7.5—Played his best match in months. Harried the defense constantly, dropped back into his own box to defend, occasionally managed to link play, and found space in the channels throughout. Showed great awareness for his goal and really should have scored a second, but the poor finishing that’s hampered him all year reared its ugly head again. Still, this version of Cholito is a good and useful player. Let’s hope he sticks around.
Muriel: 6.5—Played a new and different role, frequently dropping deep and threading passes through for Simeone rather than playing on the back shoulder himself. While his passing was pinpoint and he surely deserved an assist, he wasn’t very good when dribbling, letting 37-year-old Emiliano Moretti stonewall him several times and constantly making the wrong choice on the break.
Vlahović: 5.5—Had a couple of interesting attempts and got himself very involved, which was nice to see. Still looks like he’s a step behind mentally, as the difference of game speed from the Primavera to Serie A is obviously significant. However, he’s got all the physical tools and seems to have a good understanding with Montiel, so he could wind up being a very good player when it’s all said and done.
Dabo: 5—Didn’t really do a whole lot of note, but helped win the ball deep and shuffle it forward quickly as per usual. Looks a much better option than Gerson these days, much less Edi Fernandes. Please give him a start in central midfield (not wingback) so we can figure out if he’s part of the plan next year.
Montiel: 6.5—Despite weighing as much as a large cat and looking like a 12-year-old, he came in and ran the match for the last 10 minutes. Clearly not overawed by the level of play, he showcased good technique, excellent vision, and a maturity that’s well beyond his years. Probably not ready for 90 minutes of Rincón toe-leather yet, but should serve as an impact sub next season.