With a chance to face Inter Milan in the next stage, Giuseppe Iachini handed Patrick Cutrone his first Fiorentina start alongside Dušan Vlahović up top at the expense of Federico Chiesa, with Federico Ceccherini replacing Martín Cáceres at the back. Gian Piero Gasperini picked new signing Mattia Caldara in the heart of defense with Mario Pašalić and Ruslan Malinovskiy supporting Luis Muriel up top. Most impressive, though, were the fans who showed up at the stadium despite the 3:00 PM kickoff on a Wednesday afternoon; this is clearly no longer a game for the working class to enjoy.
Fiorentina came out strongly, pushing Atalanta back and forcing a series of errors from the defenders, but the Viola were quite ragged as well in attack, at least until Patrick Cutrone met a Dalbert cutback and slotted it home for his first goal in Florence. Marco Benassi and Vlahović squandered some decent opportunities, but the action came on the other end, where Pašalić smacked the bar with a point blank header; he really should have scored. Not to be outdone, Benassi burst through and, when 1-v-1 with Pierluigi Gollini, squared for Vlahović instead of shooting. Berat Djimisti somehow got around the Serbian striker to block it away with the goal wide open and begging.
Atalanta came out much stronger and pinned the Viola back. Despite half chances on the break, Pietro Terracciano made a fine stop on Pašalić before Hans Hateboer took the ball back and nearly lobbed him. Next it was Robin Gosens who crushed one off the woodwork with the goal at his mercy after some fine work from Muriel, but a goal was clearly coming. It arrived via Josip Iličić, who turned home a Malinovskiy cross from close range before shushing his former team’s fans, much to their displeasure. With 70 minutes gone, Germán Pezzella went over in the Atalanta box and was justly booked for a dive; as it was his second card, away he went. Fiorentina actually looked decent on the break despite being down a man, and Pol Lirola made it count after a lovely Erick Pulgar pass to switch play put him through. The Spaniard raced into the box and dispatched his low shot into the far corner with 10 minutes left, and Fiorentina held on well, although a Malinovskiy missile missed by a centimeters at the death.
Terracciano—5.5: Made a few decent saves, in particular that one on Pašalić, but followed it up by going walkabout and nearly conceding a boneheaded goal. Just like in the ICC, seemed to forget where the edge of the box was for a moment.’
Milenković—6.5: Mostly stood tall against the best attack in the league. Won everything in the air and was solid in the tackle. Fiorentina’s best defender on the day.
Pezzella—4: Was as brilliant in the first half—he erased Muriel from the proceedings entirely—as he was abject in the second half, when a series of fouls and giveaways culminated in a well-deserved yellow card that saw him sent off. Just didn’t seem sharp at all, and needs to get sorted on short rest.
Ceccherini—5: Lucky not to concede a penalty with a missed clearance that brushed his arm in the box and got pantsed by Iličić and Muriel a few times, including on the goal.
Lirola—7.5: Absolutely brilliant throughout, often serving as the primary creator in attack. Played in a handful of excellent passes, darted away from pressure with the ball to maintain possession, and of course took his goal brilliantly.
Benassi—3.5: Absolutely dire out there today. It might have been exhaustion, as he was on short rest from a draining tie against SPAL, but he consistently missed simple passes that killed promising attacks and completely borked a brilliant scoring chance. Didn’t do much else besides get overrun in the second half.
Pulgar—6.5: Battled like a madman for 90 minutes, keeping the area in front of the defense clear of threats in the first half. Fell off a bit in the second with the introduction of Lurch, who overloaded his zone. Needed more help from Castrovilli and especially Benassi to compete there.
Castrovilli—7: Burst forward on the ball consistently to jump-start attacks and made several very impressive runs. Showed a bit of bite in defense as well, but simply doesn’t offer the cover that this team needs next to Pulgar when Benassi goes walkabout.
Dalbert—6: Battled Hateboer to a draw and added a few decent passes going forward, but was mostly rather quiet. Booked for a stupid challenge on Lurch late on but was pretty sound defensively.
Vlahović—4: You really feel for the kid, as you can tell he’s a step away every time. But his decision-making is terrible—he over-dribbled on several attacks to lose the ball and managed to block Cutrone off another excellent chance—and his finishing remains woeful, as evidenced by his inability to turn that Benassi pass goalwards. Just can’t be a regular starter at this level right now, sadly.
Cutrone—7: It’s one match, sure, but he looked like the real deal. Consistently got to his spots, showcased impressive strength on the ball, and seems to innately understand what the attacking strategy is and how to help it along. Can’t wait to see him paired with Chiesa.
Cáceres—6: Came on late to shore things up and did an adequate job of plugging the Pezzella-shaped hole in the defense.
Chiesa—n/a: Only played about 5 minutes.
Three things we learned
1. Iachini has already instilled some character in this side. Can you imagine what would have happened 3 weeks ago? It’s hard to believe that Vincenzo Montella could have instilled the grinta and belief that the boys showed out there, especially under some difficult (albeit self-inflicted) circumstances. Indeed, the Viola almost looked better after going down a man. They also demonstrated an understanding of what the team’s tactics are as a whole, even if the connection is still very much lacking between the attackers going forward. Beppe isn’t going to win any trophies, but his discipline and focus on basics may be just what this side needs to get through the year.
2. This is the Lirola we were waiting for. After looking pretty underwhelming over the first half of the season, the Spaniard has risen considerably under Iachini. Part of that may be familiarity, as they worked together at Sassuolo, but it looks like the real change is his positioning: while he stayed higher up the pitch under Montella, under the new mister he’s started farther back. From his deeper mark, he tends to be closer to where he needs to be defensively while also having the space to build up some momentum going forward and survey the pitch in front of him. It’s incredible what a difference that 15 yards makes, but it’s clearly changed the way the player operates.
3. Chiesa-Cutrone is going to be so much fun. Iachini’s caught plenty of flack over the years for his negative tactics, but he’s also brought some prolific strikers to a larger stage: Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala, Andrea Belotti, and Eder are all his pupils. Cutrone looks set to become the next name in that list. Chiesa, meanwhile, isn’t likely to become a prolific goalscorer, but given the brief to run his lungs out on the break and beat defenders with the ball, he’s got to be licking his chops. Having Cutrone available to finish off his work in the box should bring out the best in him, too. And come on, if you don’t love a big man/little man strike partnership, you don’t like fun. Chiesa and Cutrone running defenders ragged is likely to be the funnest thing we’ll get this season, so cherish it.