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Inter Milan 2-1 Fiorentina: Player grades and 3 things we learned

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A loss is never good, but a competitive loss to one of Serie A’s best is less bad than most losses.

Internazionale v Fiorentina - Italian Coppa Italia
Now there’s a battle that makes you think of Paulo Sousa. Sorry, everyone.
Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/Getty Images

Pre-match

Giuseppe Iachini started Coppa staple Pietro Terracciano in goal, while Federico Ceccherini came in for the suspended Germàn Pezzella and Milan Badelj replaced the injured Gaetano Castrovilli. Up top, Duśan Vlahović partnered Federico Chiesa. Antonio Conte also shook things up, starting a tremendous trident of Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martínez, and Alexis Sánchez. Ex-Viola midfielder Matías Vecino got the nod in the middle as well.

First half

Too be honest, it was a pretty dreary affair in which neither side ever really looked like getting in on goal. Nicolò Barella dominated things in the middle pretty effectively but the hosts never managed more than half chances, failing to trouble Terracciano’s goal, although a few dazzling interventions from Dalbert and Ceccherini were necessary. At the other end, the Viola found space to attack but never seemed to get the final pass right, aside from a Pol Lirola shot that blazed just wide. The scrappy nature of the match favored the visitors, but a mistake just before halftime—Ceccherini and Terracciano miscommunicated and let Antonio Candreva steal in and slot home—undid all that good work.

Second half

Perhaps realizing the talent disparity, Inter came out firing on all cylinders. Martínez in particular looked dangerous, frequently finding space in behind and causing the defense all manner of problems. It was at the other end, though, where the next goal came: after Fiorentina’s first real chance of the half (courtesy of Dalbert, Chiesa, and Lirola) resulted in a corner, Erick Pulgar’s delivery met Martín Cáceres’ forehead and rocketed into the back of the net. Following some nice work by Dalbert and Chiesa, Vlahović had a great chance to take the lead, but dallied on his shot and let Samir Handanović deny him in a 1-v-1 situation. The Viola almost immediately conceded, however, to a tremendous half-volley from Barella which Terracciano never had a hope to stop. Iachini threw on Patrick Cutrone, Riccardo Sottil, and Rachid Ghezzal, but the Viola never really threatened (aside from a late incident in the Nerazzurri box which sure looked like a Diego Godín foul on Cáceres but went uncalled) and ended as a spirited but ultimately overmatched opponent for the Biscione.

Player grades

Terracciano—5: Made one very good stop on a Martínez header at the start of the second half and was fairly safe otherwise, but his error undid a very strong half of work from the defense. He’s a veteran and has to communicate better with his defenders.

Milenković—6: Bossed Alexis right off the pitch and battled Lukaku to a standstill but struggled a bit more when faced with Martínez; then again, the Argentine is as tough an assignment as any in the league, so there’s no shame in that.

Ceccherini—4.5: Huge mistake on the Candreva goal, and he’s going to be pilloried for it. However, he was otherwise brilliant in the first half and adequate in the second, so you can’t in good conscience call him a total flop today.

Cáceres—6.5: The goal was an absolutely splendid header (over Martínez, no less), but the Uruguayan was a bit less impressive on the other end, struggling to keep pace with his victim on his goal.

Lirola—6.5: Once again, a pretty good showing from the Spaniard. Did a nice job of getting forward occasionally to provide a threat out wide, coming close to a goal early on and contributing throughout. Did a quite solid job on Ashley Young at the other end, too, not allowing the Englishman much space at all.

Pulgar—5.5: Thrust back into a box-to-box role which he’s clearly not suited to, he did a good job in the first half of breaking up play and keeping Inter out of dangerous areas, but didn’t add much going forward aside from a good delivery for the goal.

Badelj—5: Helped keep the midfield clean in the first half and shuffled the ball around decently, but also lost out in dangerous spots a couple of times and maybe could have dropped a bit deeper to impede the Inter tridente more than he did. Can still do a job, but this may not have been the right match for him.

Benassi—4.5: Barely there. This felt like the perfect game for him to pop up out of whatever dimension he teleports to, but he just didn’t show up. Still not sure what to make of him.

Dalbert—7: Man of the match for me. Made a number fantastic defensive plays of the last-ditch variety and played in the crosses for Fiorentina’s two best chances in open play. Seemed motivated against his parent club in what may have amounted to an audition for him.

Chiesa—5.5: Hard to judge him too harshly, given that he received almost no service, but he put his head down one too many times when he should have looked up.

Vlahović—5.5: Did a fantastic job of winning free kicks, especially in the first half, but didn’t really offer any goal threat and borked yet another excellent chance. Seems to be overthinking when he has time on the ball in threatening positions.

Cutrone—5: Not very involved in the play itself, but his movement remains fantastic; made a perfect run to the near post on that Vlahović miss that allowed the Serbian to move into space. Used in a right-sided role which didn’t really suit him.

Sottil—5: Had a couple of decent moments, but his decision-making remains a work in progress and he’s clearly developing a reputation as a diver, which can be tough to shake.

Ghezzal—n/a: Only played for 5 minutes and didn’t do diddly.

Three things we learned

1. Iachini has papered over a lot of cracks in the short term. The style of play remains nearly unwatchable, but it bears repeating that Beppe’s given this team an identity and spirit that we haven’t seen since that win streak that followed Davide Astori’s death. By sticking to the basics, limiting the number of decisions anyone has to make in possession, and minimizing mistakes, the Viola have become a team that nobody wants to play against because they’re very difficult to beat; had Pezzella been available, you have to think that the first goal never would have happened. Iachini may not be in Florence for too long, but he’s got this team working together. Just like Stefano Pioli, he’s not the guy you want for the long haul, but his ability to instill some esprit de corps should pay dividends for whoever’s in the dugout next.

2. Castrovilli is the most important player on this team. It’s safe to say that this isn’t Federico Chiesa’s team anymore. With Cutrone and Vlahović available up top, Fiorentina’s stocked with other forwards and doesn’t need Fede to carry everyone by himself anymore. Castrovilli, on the other hand, is the only player on the roster (outside of Franck Ribery) who can carry the ball forward from deeper positions, which deforms a defense tremendously and leads to openings for everyone else. With him, the Viola have two options in attack: play short to his feet and let him drive up the pitch, or hit long balls into the channels. Without him, the tactics are horrendously one-dimensional and thus easy to counter. He’s the only inventive force in the middle of the park, and in his absence, things grind to a halt.

3. It’s hard to win when your strikers don’t score goals. Every team wants a balanced attack, because it’s much harder for an opponent to stop everyone than it is for an opponent to focus on a single attacker. That said, of the 32 goals that Fiorentina’s scored this year, 12 have come from the forwards; Inter, for example, have 38 of their 56 goals from forwards. I’ll be taking a deeper dive on this fairly soon, but the long and short of it is that the strikers have to score if a team’s going to win consistently, and that hasn’t been the case this year.