What frustrates you the most about Fiorentina right now? Is it the never-changing 3-5-2? Is it watching the same midfield be overrun every game? Or is it watching Franck Ribéry and José Callejón line up as strikers together? With the UEFA Champions League’s third matchday kicking off tonight, let’s put that exasperation aside and focus on a better time- when Fiorentina last participated in that same fixture.
On October 20, 2009, Fiorentina took the pitch at the Ferenc Puksás Arena in Budapest against Hungarian Champions Debreceni VSC. It was Fiorentina’s first visit to the Hungarian capital since 1966 when the club lost 4-2 to Györi ETO FC in the first round of the Cup Winners’ Cup. As you might suspect, Debreceni were minnows by Champions League standards, being just the second Hungarian club at the time to qualify for the modern version of the Champions League, and the last until Ferencvárosi TC this year. To qualify, Debreceni knocked off Kalmar of Sweden, Levadia Tallinn of Estonia, and Levski Sofia of Bulgaria. Fiorentina qualified directly to the playoff round by finishing fourth in Serie A, where the Viola defeated Sporting Lisbon on away goals.
The odds were further stacked against the Hungarians when accounting for their stadium situation. The Stadion Oláh Gábor Út in Debrecen, an hour from the Romanian border, had a capacity of just 10,200 and was not deemed suitable to host Champions League matches. As a result, the club had to play more than a two-hour drive away at the national stadium in Budapest. Holding a capacity of 38,652 (after renovations), the now-demolished venue was the venue 55 years earlier when Hungary handed the English national team their worst defeat in history, beating the Three Lions 7-1 in front of 90,000 fans in the return leg of the “match of the century”.
On Viola Nation (then Fiorentina Offside), the prediction was that due to the long drive required for the home fans, “the atmosphere may be far from lively”. Luckily, the stadium was packed with the home faithful, who were not going to miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity to watch their club on Europe’s biggest stage, far outnumbering the 1000 or so Fiorentina fans who made the journey.
Another pre-match surprise was the presence of none other than then-Fifa President Sepp Blatter, who had been in Budapest for a FIFA-related conference. He was joined by then-Hungarian prime minister Gordon Bajnai, where I’m sure the two had a lovely time, with Blatter not proposing any corrupt schemes whatsoever.
Fiorentina themselves came into the match having played eight matches in Serie A. The Viola had taken 15 points, having just tied Juventus the weekend before, good enough for third in Serie A. In the Champions League, the news was even better. After a 1-0 loss against Hugo Lloris and Miralem Pjanić’s Lyon, Fiorentina handled prime Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres’ Liverpool at the Franchi 2-0, with Stevan Jovetić scoring a brace. Now facing Debreceni in their next two matches, a win in Hungary would go a long way towards securing a spot for the Viola in the knockout stages.
The 2009/10 season was the final year of Cesare Prandelli’s five-year tenure, still the longest of any Fiorentina manager. Before the match, Prandelli stressed humility. “We are not starting as favorites. If we think that, we are committing a grave error”. Given the Viola’s demanding schedule, it was not certain that stars such as Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino would start. “I’m evaluating deploying Mutu from the beginning,” Prandelli said. “Gilardino? He’s a little tired”.
In the end, Prandelli started both of them, with Jovetić moving to the bench to rest instead, alongside fellow star Riccardo Montolivo. The formation was a 4-2-3-1. Gilardino would lead the line, with Mutu roaming underneath. Juan Vargas took up the left flank, Marco Donadel and Cristiano Zanetti made up the central midfield. Current Fiorentina employee Dario Dainelli captained the side and started at center back, with club icons Sebastien Frey and Manual Pasqual also in the eleven.
Prandelli approached this match intending to make the Hungarians uncomfortable through a barrage of crosses, from the left by Vargas and the right by Mario Santana. The job of the midfielders and defenders was not to hold the ball, but to advance the ball quickly, giving Debreceni no time to breathe.
Debreceni, maybe viewing this match as their best chance to get a point, threw caution to the wind, throwing men forward.
Of course, this is Fiorentina we’re talking about. The game was never going to go to plan. Despite starting such a strong lineup and Prandelli’s pre-match cautions, it took just 67 seconds for Debreceni to score their first-ever Champions League goal. Maybe it was the jet-lag, or the noise of the stadium, or just a flat-out miscommunication, but regardless, Péter Czvitkovics was left wide-open at the back post to tap in a József Varga cross, sending the Ferenc Puskas stadium rocking. In the aftermath, Prandelli is seen yelling through cupped hands, encouraging the team to move on and begin the game anew.
After conceding, Fiorentina was frantic. Mutu fired a 35-yard shot well wide in frustration, and then the Viola whipped in cross after cross for several minutes, until Mutu stepped up and buried a half-volley into the far-left corner in the sixth minute, courtesy of Dainelli.
The pressure from the visitors continued. There was no wasted possession with this Fiorentina team, every pass seemed to be vertical and directly challenging the Debreceni defence. In the 10th minute, Juan Vargas rattled the crossbar from 25 yards out. Just seconds later, Vargas slotted Mutu into space, rolling the ball across to Gilardino, who calmly slotted the ball away. Now, Prandelli stood silent, seemingly more pleased with the result.
It took just 10 minutes for Gilardino to return the favor. Tracking down a long ball from Pasqual, Gilardino turned into the box before laying the ball back to the late-arriving Mutu. From 25 yards out, straight on goal, Mutu struck the ball with the outside of his foot to perfection, pinging the ball of the right post of Vukašin Poleksić’s net and in. Fiorentina had control.
At least, that’s what we thought. Like I said above, this is Fiorentina. Watching back this game, Debreceni did not play to their UEFA coefficient, not parking the bus and constantly pressuring the Viola, forcing Frey to make many stops. In the 28th minute, it was Gergely Rudolf dancing past several viola Viola defenders before curling in a beauty from a poor angle 20 yards out. There was no encouragement from Prandelli now, just some choice words for the assistant sitting next to him.
This scoring continued just nine minutes later, when Fiorentina tallied their fourth. A direct ball down the left flank by Donadel led to a powerful Vargas cross, and Mario Santana slotted home an ensuing rebound to regain a two-goal lead.
In the second half, some calm finally calmed arrived. The only goal of the half was courtesy of Adama Coulibaly, who scored off a free-kick for the hosts in the 88th minute. The match ended with the teams having an even number of shots (13), and Debreceni having four corners to Fiorentina’s one. The most important news for Fiorentina fans that half came from halfway across the continent at Anfield. Cesar Delgado’s injury-time winner for Lyon against Liverpool meant that Fiorentina had sole possession of second place in the group, a status they would not relinquish.
After the match, Prandelli was to-the-point. “I expected a better performance, because we are a team that works to improve every day, but we are growing very quickly, so this was pleasing to see again tonight.” Prandelli also discussed Adrian Mutu’s remarkable performance- “For us [his form] is very important, and it should be an extra boost for his team-mates.”
Mutu would play less than 1400 minutes the entire season, marred by a failed drug test less than three weeks before the first leg of Fiorentina’s round of 16 clash with Bayern Munich. Even though Fiorentina ended up pushing Bayern to the limit, you have to wonder what may have been had our best player been available. On this night, however, he showed his brilliance at calcio’s highest level.
Off the field, the match cause even more drama, for years to come. Debreceni’s goalkeeper, the Montenegrin international Poleksić (a friend of Jovetić), was suspended for two years by FIFA for failing to report bribe attempts from a betting company that were made before both the Fiorentina match at home and the Liverpool match away in the group stage. Despite not accepting the bribe, Pokeksić’s appeal was not overturned due to him failing to report it.
It’s been a while since Fiorentina played in the Champion’s League, and it may well be a while longer. At this point, I think most of us would be happy for the Europa League, or even the new Europa Conference League. Debreceni has had an even sharper decline than the Viola. The club was relegated from Hungary’s top division last season but is currently leading the second division after 14 matches.
While these teams will likely never play a competitive game against each other again, the fact that a matchup as random as Debreceni-Fiorentina produced such entertainment is why I love the beautiful game. Sometimes it’s nice to realize that even if Fiorentina’s present is dismal, we still have been a very successful club (with some brilliant players to boot). Here’s to the next Fiorentina Champions League match.