The winter transfer window may be hogging all the headlines, but Fiorentina still has to play. This week, they host their first match of 2020 (and first of Beppe Iachini’s tenure) when SPAL comes to town. In their 39 meetings—the first was in 1938’s Serie B—the Viola hold a W17 D14 L8 edge. Since the Spallini returned to Serie A, they’ve yet to beat the Gigliati, who’ve won twice and drawn twice; in fact, you have to go back to 1961 to find the last time the Estensi won at the Franchi. In this fixture last year, the Viola got perhaps their last comprehensive win in the league, a 3-0 pasting featuring a Marko Pjaca goal.
The referee for this one is 36-year-old Federico La Penna of Rome. In 11 league appearances this year, he’s handed out 48 yellow cards, 3 red cards, and 7 penalties; he can take a pretty active hand at times. The only time he’s handled a Fiorentina tie was the 5-2 drubbing at Cagliari earlier this year.
The match will be played on Sunday, 12 January 2019, at 2:00 PM GMT/9:00 AM EST at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence. The forecast calls for a perfect winter day at the stadium: reasonably warm despite sub-freezing temperatures in the morning and the evening, clear, and with little wind. Should be a treat to attend.
After last week’s insanely disappointing slip up late in stoppage time to let Bologna steal a draw, Fiorentina’s now spans 8 matches, with October’s come-from-behind win over Sassuolo the last victory. That leaves the Viola in 15th place with just 18 points, 4 above the drop zone (although somehow just 6 behind 8th-place Napoli as well). It’s getting desperate already.
New manager Giuseppe Iachini has plenty to think about, given that he has a Coppa Italia match to plan for on Wednesday and that all of Nikola Milenković, Martín Cáceres, Dalbert, and Pol Lirola are at risk of missing next week’s clash at Napoli with another card. We expect him to trot out a 3-5-2, as usual, with Marco Benassi hanging onto his spot in midfield and Dušan Vlahović likely to continue up top with Federico Chiesa. It’s unlikely that new signing Patrick Cutrone will suit up, but given the dire state of the Viola strikeforce, a cameo off the bench isn’t out of the question.
SPAL boast a better defensive record than Fiorentina, having conceded 28 times to the Viola’s 29. That’s good for joint-12th in Serie A, which is much better than you’d expect from the last-place side in the league. They work by sitting deep and denying opponents space in the middle, inviting crosses and shots from distance in favor of denying space between the lines. That’s a nightmare scenario for Fiorentina, who are missing the only player they have who can consistently unlock that deep defense in Franck Ribery. That means that Castrovilli’s drives forward and Chiesa’s work as a forward dropping in to receive the ball before turning will likely determine the attack’s success, as there won’t be much space in behind.
It’s been a might rough year for the Biancazzurri, who sit dead last in the league with just 12 points, although they did just get their first away win of the season two weeks ago against Torino, even though that’s their only non-defeat in their past 5. It’s quite a change of affairs from what happened last year, when they finished 11th and reached as high as 2nd at one point.
Manager Leonardo Semplici (formerly of the Fiorentina Primavera) has a bit of a headache, as CB Nenad Tomović (suspension), LB Arkadiusz Reca (thigh), RM Marco d’Alessandro (knee), and LM Mohamed Fares (knee) are all out, forcing him to use the likes of Thiago Cionek at wingback in his standard 3-5-2, who’s a good player but a far cry from Manuel Lazzari, who excelled in that role for the past couple of years.
You know what to expect when SPAL shows up: a deep block, long balls forward to the wingbacks bursting into space, and a steady diet of crosses for the very large Andrea Petagna to bully into the net, which he’s done 6 times this year. He’s the only real goal threat, if we’re being honest, although Federico di Francesco has shown glimpses of talent this year as a quick forward drifting around. Make no mistake, though: if the Viola can push pin SPAL’s wingbacks deep and keep a body on Petagna, they’ve got a good chance of getting a win.
How to watch
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Ted’s Memorial Blind Guess Department
SPAL have scored just 12 goals this season, so a clean sheet feels like a decent bet here, especially as the defense gets more familiar with Iachini’s system. Given that SPAL will sit very deep away from home, just as the Viola prefer, this could feature a lot of long, aimless passing from deep and a very choppy midfield battle. Whoever scores first will have a huge advantage, as they’ll be able to play their preferred style (soaking up pressure and breaking on the break), so that opening goal is crucial. With SPAL looking very light at wingback, that means that Fiorentina should be able to control the wide areas, giving Chiesa plenty of freedom to drift wide, combine, and attack from the wings, wreaking havoc from there. That advantage is why we’re predicting a 2-0 win for the good guys, with Chiesa and Erick Pulgar on the mark.