There are moments as a football fan that you will always remember, and those last gasp dramatic goals and victories are more unforgettable than most. After almost 95 minutes at the Eden Arena in Prague on Wednesday afternoon, for fans of this Fiorentina team came a moment that will surely never be forgotten.
Just when most of us had probably given up hope of ever grabbing that one goal we needed, the Viola women kept on believing. Five minutes of added time were almost up, and after a foul on Daniela Sabatino a free-kick was surely our last chance, our last roll of the dice. At four minutes and forty one seconds, Tatiana Bonetti’s left boot met the ball and floated it into the box, Sabatino managed to escape her marker and was the only player to rise to meet it and her header nestled in the corner of the net, beyond the despairing keeper.
There were incredible scenes of celebration, as every Fiorentina substitute and staff member ran to the pitch to celebrate with Sabatino and her team-mates. The referee had to ask them to clear the pitch so the game could re-start, but there was never going to be enough time for the home side to rescue the game. After the final whistle, the Slavia players lay on the pitch in tears while the Fiorentina team could continue their celebrations.
A 2-2 draw at home last week had meant that Fiorentina needed to score and had to win this difficult away tie. Slavia had made it past this stage of the competition in the last five competitions and had reached the quarter-final stage twice. With two away goals from the first leg, they could afford not to force the game too much and were quite happy to see this one out when it looked like we were headed for a scoreless draw.
Last week Fiorentina had got off to a great start when Louise Quinn had opened the scoring after only four minutes. Slavia then hit back with two goals before Sabatino grabbed an equalizer just over ten minutes from the end, another goal which would prove crucial to the Viola’s chances of getting through this round.
The next stage of the competition, the Round of 16, will not take place until March of next year and we will need to wait until February to find out who our next opponents will be when the draw takes place in Nyon. What we do know at this stage is that Fiorentina will be on the unseeded side of the draw again, and we also know the eight teams which will be on the other side of the draw.
The top seeded team is of course seven time tournament winners Lyon, who knocked Juventus out in this round on an aggregate score of 6-2. In the draw for the round just completed we had avoided the other French giant PSG and English side Manchester City, who are another two of our possible opponents this time around. The number two seeded team are Wolfsburg, the Germans put Fiorentina out of their first ever Champions League in 2017/18.
The other four teams which make up the list of possible opponents are Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Swedish club Rosengard. Chelsea are another club who have knocked Fiorentina out of the tournament, in the 2018/19 edition.
This is Fiorentina’s fourth time appearing in the Champions League, and this is now the third season of the four that the team has qualified for the last 16. Last season was in fact the only occasion where the club didn’t get past the Round of 32, when they came up against Arsenal, and Louise Quinn.
The tie was all but over after the first leg at the Stadio Franchi, with the Gunners grabbing two goals in each half. Former Bayern Munich player and top scorer in last seasons competition, Vivianne Miedema opened the scoring after 18 minutes and she scored a second goal shortly after the break. Kim Little and Lisa Evans the other scorers. Louise Quinn came on as a second half substitute for Arsenal, but would miss the return leg in London. Instead she would commentate on the game for her club, giving her a good chance to have a look at what would turn out to be her future team mates.
The second leg ended 2-0, Little putting away a penalty just before half-time and Miedema again on the scoresheet in the second half. The two previous tournaments had seen Fiorentina meet Danish side Fortuna Hjørring in the Round of 32 on both occasions.
Fiorentina’s debut Champions League tournament was in 2017/18 having won their first ever Serie A title the previous season. The Danish club were already very experienced in Europe at that stage. Back in 2002/03 they reached the final of what was then called the European Women’s Cup, and since it became the Champions League in 2009/10 they had participated in every tournament and had always made it past the Round of 32 stage.
A tough ask then for the Fiorentina women, but when they welcomed Fortuna to the Franchi on October 4th 2017, the club’s first ever Champions League match ended in a 2-1 win. Valery Vigilucci opened the scoring six minutes before the break, and when Ilaria Mauro added a second on the hour mark things were looking very good for the home side. Fortuna though showed their class and managed to grab an important away goal to take back to Hjørring with Signe Brunn (now with PSG) scoring.
A week later then and it would be a nail biting ninety minutes for the Viola. Fiorentina managed to keep this one scoreless and progressed to the last sixteen on their first outing in Europe. That Fortuna team included current Fiorentina players Frederikke Thøgersen and Janelle Cordia. Fiorentina’s reward was a last sixteen clash with German giants Wolfsburg.
Wolfsburg were not only the current German champions but had already won the Champions League twice and lost another final on penalties to Lyon. If Fortuna had been a tough challenge then this was a real step into the unknown. Wolfsburg came to Florence on November 8th and would come away with a 4-0 win, the tie all but wrapped up. One of the goals was scored by the Danish international Pernille Harder, who just a few months ago joined Chelsea for a world record transfer fee in women’s football.
Fiorentina then were faced with an almost impossible task when they travelled to Germany a week later, but they got off to the best possible start when Ilaria Mauro opened the scoring after only two minutes. Belgian international Tessa Wullaert scored two goals before half-time to finish off any hopes of a Viola miracle. Precilla Rinaldi levelled the game on the hour mark and although Wolfsburg would again take the lead, Fiorentina gained a very creditable draw here when English forward Ellie Brazil scored with less than ten minutes remaining.
Wolfsburg would go on to compete in that season’s final, where they lost out to Lyon again, in extra-time. On the way there they also defeated Slavia Praha 6-1 on aggregate and Chelsea 5-1.
Fiorentina also took part in the following season’s competition, this despite finishing third in Serie A. Brescia were taken over by Milan which ruled them out and Fiorentina would win a play-off with Tavagnacco, 3-0, for the right to enter the Champions League. Yet again, they were drawn with Fortuna at the Round of 32 stage.
Fortuna had just won the Danish league and once more Fiorentina would face Cordia and Thøgersen. This time around Fiorentina would win both legs 2-0, Ilaria Mauro scoring both goals in the home leg on September 12th. Any hopes of a Fortuna comeback in the second leg were killed off by two Lana Clelland goals in the first half.
In the next round Fiorentina were drawn with English league winners Chelsea. Fiorentina travelled to London on October 17th and things looked ominous after only eight minutes when England international Karen Carney scored from the penalty spot. Stephanie Breitner was judged to have handballed a cross into the box.
This would prove to be the only goal of the game however, as Stéphanie Öhrström pulled off a string of superb saves to deny the home side. This was a great result for Fiorentina to take back to Florence, even though they hadn’t managed to grab an away goal. But considering the fact that Chelsea had put eleven goals past Sarajevo over two legs in the previous round, holding them to that solitary goal from a penalty, on their home turf, was no mean feat.
When Chelsea came to the Franchi two weeks later, they were not to be denied this time. They were 2-0 up at half-time and in the end ran out 6-0 winners. Fran Kirby scored a hat-trick that day, one from the penalty spot. Chelsea showed just how strong a side they were when they then knocked out PSG in the next round before going down 3-2 in the semi-finals to eventual winners Lyon.
Fiorentina have not made it past the last 16 stage of the tournament in their three outings in the competition so far, but after now knocking out a side ranked seventh in Europe they will not be afraid of facing any of the their possible opponents when the draw for the next round takes place.
The squad still contains quite a few players who took part in Fiorentina’s first Champions League experience in 2017/18, with the likes of Öhrström, Greta Adami, Tatiana Bonetti, Alice Tortelli and Vigilucci still at the club. Add to that the other experienced players that have since joined the club and it’s a squad that knows how to approach Champions League games.
As already mentioned, both Frederikke Thøgersen and Janelle Cordia have a wealth of European experience from their time at Fortuna. Louise Quinn’s time in the competition goes back to her days with Irish club Peamount United, and her goal in last weeks first leg was certainly not her first in the Champions League. Back in 2011/12 she scored a hat-trick at the qualifying stage for the Dublin side. Louise also appeared in the competition with Swedish club Eskilstuna and of course Arsenal.
Stéphanie Öhrström not only has Champions League experience with Fiorentina but also with her former clubs Verona and Bardolino as does Tatiana Bonetti with Verona and Tavagnacco.
Fiorentina are now flying the flag for Italian football in Europe, after the exit of Juventus, and this is also important for the UEFA rankings. Although next seasons competition will see a change of format as the last sixteen clubs will play in four groups, which will mean a lot more European games for a side that reaches that stage.
Before the next round takes place in March, Fiorentina will need to keep their focus on the league where they have a lot of points to make up to have a chance of qualifying for next seasons competition. For now though we can bask in those incredible last few seconds of Wednesday’s win over Slavia Praha. Our girls did us proud, and Fiorentina can hold it’s head high in Europe.