The Stadio San Potato was mighty empty; the away fans’ singing often drowned out the home support, which frequently turned on the hosts. For those hosts, Gennaro Gattuso initially picked Giovanni di Lorenzo in central defense with Sebastiano Luperto on the left (although midway through the first half, the former moved to the right, the latter to the center, and Elseid Hysaj came to the right). Giuseppe Iachini ran out Federico Chiesa and Patrick Cutrone together up top for the first time.
While both teams created excellent chances early on—Pol Lirola with a cross that Gaetano Castrovilli couldn’t turn home, Arkadiusz Milik with a flying volley that Bartłomiej Drągowski denied, and a good penalty shout for an Allan handball in the box—it was the visitors who scored first through Chiesa, who brilliantly dispatched a Marco Benassi cutback after Castrovilli swung it across. The winger nearly doubled his tally at the half hour mark when he arrived at the back post for a tipped corner, but David Ospina tipped his header onto the bar. The ever-dangerous José Callejón missed a point-blank header after beating the offside trap, but it was the Viola who looked ever the more dangerous despite ceding possession and position. With Chiesa and Castrovilli breaking forward and Cutrone’s excellent movement wreaking havoc in the Partenopei rearguard, the half ended with the visitors in the ascendancy.
Napoli emerged from the break looking sharp, finding gaps in the Fiorentina defense and even hitting the post via a long-range Lorenzo Insigne effort, but the Viola eventually settled and hit back through some Chiesa hard work and a moment of Castrovilli genius, but the former couldn't beat Ospina. You could see the hosts starting to lose belief around the hour mark, as their movements became predictable and the Gigliati consistently threatened on the break, but the visitors had to wait until 75 minutes had gone for Chiesa to hold off several defenders, switch play to Lirola, and then watch Dušan Vlahović sumptuously curl an effort past a helpless Ospina. Aside from some more pornographic dribbling from Castrovilli and referee Fabrizio Pasqua declining to send off substitute Diego Demme for a glaringly obvious second (or maybe third) bookable offense, Fiorentina shut up shop with the sort of tranquility you don’t expect from a bottom-half side.
Drągowski—6.5: Made a few good stops, particularly the one on Milik early, and was really quick off his line to claim through balls. Was luck that Insigne’s effort hit the post, as he was well beaten when he could have done better, but was mostly solid.
Milenković—7: Typically muscular work from the big man. Did well to stay in front of the ever-tricky Insigne and wasn’t phased by Milik or any other attackers. Tracked runs from midfield pretty well. Did have a crazy moment when he powered forward, beat 2 or 3 defenders, then lost the ball in midfield, but was otherwise excellent.
Pezzella—7: A return to form for the captain, who put Milik in his pocket for nearly the entire match. Won everything in the air, refused to let anything by him on the ground, and organized his defense well, aside from failing to cope with several around-the-corner passes to Callejón. Good to see that he’s back from a brief rough stretch.
Cáceres—7.5: Titanic. Stonewalled everyone else who came near him, made all the right decisions, won every ball, and generally bossed the Napoli attack. After he figured out Callejón’s diagonal runs in, didn’t let the Spaniard get a sniff in the second half.
Lirola—7: Got an assist and did a nice job of keeping Insigne quiet. Was a bit more reserved in attack, but still made a couple of excellent bursts forward, and dropped a dime for Castrovilli early on. Looks like the player we wanted him to be.
Benassi—7: Who is this man? Rather than being a passenger, showcased his athleticism to consistently get forward and support the attack. Dug in defensively and didn’t give an inch, funneling opponents either inside to Pulgar or down the line to Lirola and Milenković. Unexpected.
Pulgar—7: Less aggressive than we’re used to seeing him, largely because he didn’t step up the pitch to crunch opponents but held his ground in front of defense and shut down that zone. Was excellent in possession too, mostly keeping it tidy but also hitting a couple of nice switches of play that indicated he may be a bit less clunky with the ball than suspected.
Castrovilli—8: This guy. Looked like a threat every time he got the ball, dancing past helpless defenders as he glided up the pitch. Showed off some really creative passing, too, which is very promising, and didn't neglect his defensive work. Maybe his most complete performance this season. What a player.
Dalbert—6.5: Mostly pretty reserved, but got forward well to support the attack at times and offered a crossing option. More importantly, kept things tight at the back. Just a good, solid showing for the Brazilian.
Chiesa—8: Reborn under Iachini. Gone is the selfishness, replaced by an understanding that sometimes he should put his head down and sometimes he should use his teammates. The goal was brilliant, the hockey assist was brilliant, the young man himself is brilliant. Napoli never looked even remotely comfortable against him.
Cutrone—7: Not on the scoresheet, but his movement opened up so much space for everyone else; look at the attention he drew for Chiesa’s goal, pulling defenders away from Fede with his gravity. Worked hard, made excellent runs, and showed the sort of skillset that makes him very valuable even if he’s not shooting (and he didn’t register an attempt).
Vlahović—7: This is the Dušan we were promised. Galloped forward on the break as usual, but started to show an aerial presence as he held off defenders to play in his mates. Still a bit too loose with the ball, but you can forgive that when he scores a worldie like that. My word.
Sottil—6: He’s alive! Made a few neat runs, but mostly made his impact felt by winning fouls, which he does as well as anyone on the team; his combination of acceleration, touch, and body control make him tough to stop once he gets a head of steam.
Ceccherini—n/a: Came on to shore up the defense for the last few minutes and did just that.
Three things we learned
1. Patrick Cutrone makes a huge difference. As mentioned above, the young forward was fantastic, even though he didn’t even take a shot (the splendid volley he lashed home was correctly blown up for offside). He alternated playing on the shoulder of the last man to offer a threat in behind and dropping deep to encourage runners on before spinning in behind himself. His movement and positioning cause defenses all sorts of trouble even though he’s not exactly a speedster, and he seems to have already developed an excellent relationship with Chiesa. More importantly, though, he seems to have gotten his fellow young forwards in Fede and Dušan to work together with him; esprit de corps is sometimes overrated, but watch Patrick when he’s on the bench. He seems genuinely excited for the team, and that enthusiasm is infectious. I mean, c’mon.
Still can’t get over this expression of mutual love and support. This is what the game should be all about. pic.twitter.com/yKIElVkqrx— Viola Nation (@Viola_Nation) January 19, 2020
2. Iachini’s getting the best out of everyone so far. Former VN boss Lorenzo and our own Nolan KB observed during this one that the ball-capped mister even has Benassi looking like a real midfielder (although that may be due to the anarchic nature of Marco’s style. But Chiesa looks like a new man too, and Lirola has been excellent. Vlahović looks sharper and less stressed. Pulgar’s been a top-notch destroyer with a bit extra in his locker. All of the relative underperformers have turned it around. It may be nothing more than the relief of not having Vincenzo Montella in charge—there’s a lot of season yet for the Iachini who got sacked for not getting enough out of a decent Empoli side last year to manifest himself—but the combination of tactics, discipline, and man management have reinvented the entire squad. Beppe deserves a big round of applause for that.
3. It’s just one game. Beating Napoli at the San Potato is a wonderful thing no matter what, but let’s remember the caveats. The Partenopei were missing half of their defense and seem to be dealing with an intra-squad crisis (Allan bolting down the tunnel after being subbed speaks volumes), and the players clearly gave up in the second half. Gattuso’s reportedly on the hot seat already, which isn’t surprising seeing that they haven’t won at home in the league since October. Too, remember the 7-1 destruction of AS Roma last year: anyone playing a high line and refusing to adjust to a good (or lucky) counterattacking side can get burned at any moment, and the team doing the burning isn’t necessarily good; this is the same group that struggled against SPAL 6 days ago. Let’s not rush off to celebrate the impending European football yet; let’s just do what Iachini do and focus on the basics, trusting that the rest will sort itself.