Fiorentina travel north and east to Friuli to take on Udinese in a match that will be played behind closed doors, sapping this maybe-but-probably-not-important-to-the-relegation-places scrap of much of its intensity. Since these two clubs first met in 1931’s Serie B, the Gigliati hold a W49 D27 L22 record against the Zebrette, including a W6 D3 L1 mark in their past 10 meetings. The Viola comfortably took the reverse fixture to the tune of 1-0 in Vincenzo Montella’s last gasp of competence before, well, you know.
The referee for this one is 36-year-old Michael Fabbri of Ravenna. In 12 Serie A matches this year, he’s handed out 67 yellow cards, 2 red cards, and 4 penalties; he seems to be considered one of the best referees under 40 in the country, as he’s started working European matches this year as well. In the 9 Fiorentina matches he’s handled, the Viola are W4 D2 L3; we saw him most recently in last year’s 0-1 defeat to Parma, which featured a Federico Chiesa penalty incident not given (as well as a completely correct straight red for Vitor Hugo).
The match will be played Sunday, 8 March 2020, at 7:00 PM GMT/1:00 PM EST behind closed doors—so the atmosphere is going to be very odd—at the Stadio Friuli (or Dacia Arena if you prefer to bow to the corporate overlords) in Udine. The forecast calls for a perfect spring evening, clear and chilly and generally as nice as the fans could ask for. Too bad.
It’s almost pointless to write a blurb on Udinese here, as you know exactly what to expect from them at this point. While their consistency in achieving low- to mid-table finishes on a small budget every season without ever threatening for Europe or relegation is admirable, they’ve spent the last decade as perhaps the least interesting side in Serie A, grinding out wins behind a deep block and direct football no matter who’s in the team or on the touchlines. They’re in 15th place this year with 27 points, which is precisely what you’d expect, although their -16 goal difference and failure to win in their past 7 matches in all competitions indicates that things may be teetering.
Manager Luca Gotti will have to do without veteran CB Sebastian Prödl (unknown) but has the rest of his XI intact. He uses a typical 3-5-2, featuring a low, compact block that prioritizes cohesiveness over possession. Despite the deep positioning of the wingbacks and the narrow formation, they like to cross, which takes advantage of a couple of big, rugged strikers. The midfield has a surprising amount of skill with the perpetually underrated Seko Fofana and the (ahem) €23 million man Rolando Mandragora pulling the strings, but the team’s focus is still long balls and general negativity.
The dangerman here, of course, is Rodrigo de Paul, who’s somehow still in Udine despite being strongly linked to a number of teams (particularly Fiorentina) over the past couple of years. Playing as a traditional 10 behind two strikers in the athletic Kevin Lasagna (4 goals) and the reborn Stefano Okaka (5 goals and 2 assists), he’ll often drift wide to combine with wingbacks Ken Sema and Jens Stryer Larsen, both of whom will get into the box if left unattended. With Okaka’s size and Lasagna’s springs (keep your “leaping Lasagna” jokes to yourself, please) keeping defenses deep to defend crosses, de Paul has license to move into the half spaces, receive the ball from Fofana or Mandragora, and then make a play. Shutting the Argentine down will pretty much guarantee the Viola at least a draw and will surely be Iachini’s top priority.
Despite the moans and groans from some segments of the fanbase of late, Fiorentina have taken 8 points from their past 5 league matches and look to have righted the ship since Montella’s departure. Now 13th with 29 points and, more impressively, a -4 goal difference, the team has solidified itself as a sturdy, competent outfit that generally won’t drop points against inferior opposition and can give more talented opponents all kinds of trouble. That’s a far cry from the swashbuckling approach that one associates with Italy’s most romantic club, but a necessary step in the right direction.
Manager Giuseppe Iachini will have to cope without Dalbert (suspension), which means we’ll likely see Igor deployed as a wingback. There have also been murmurs that Milan Badelj could return to the starting lineup; while having the Croatian regista pull the strings against an Udinese that will doubtless sit deep is useful, his lack of mobility in front of the defense is just asking for trouble from de Paul, which is concerning. Other than that, it should be the now-standard XI, although this could also be a good spot to use Patrick Cutrone rather than Dušan Vlahović, as the former’s clever movement may be of greater concern to the Zebrette than the latter’s pace and directness.
There are two keys here for Fiorentina. The first will be getting Gaetano Castrovilli in space to run at Mandragora, who probably lacks the athleticism to stay in front of him. That could mean we see him and Alfred Duncan switch sides to take advantage. The second is getting the ball quickly through the midfield and into Chiesa’s feet. Since punts over the top probably won’t work against a deep-lying defense, finding Fede between the lines and letting him turn defenders or slip in his strike partner is probably the best option for the good guys.
How to watch
TV: Probably not, but check the full international television listings here.
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Ted’s Memorial Blind Guess Department
A closed stadium and a tie between two teams that really don’t want the ball doesn’t exactly forebode a brilliant spectacle. Expect a lot of choppiness, a lot of fouls, and a lot of aimless hoofs upfield. I like Fiorentina in this spot, though, as they’re in better form at the moment and have more players capable of creating something from nothing. While de Paul will likely have a couple of good moments as he shakes free of Badelj, my money’s on a tight 0-1 win to the Viola behind a Castrovilli goal.