Following a lengthy guitar solo from local high schooler Jacopo Mastrangelo, Lazio and Fiorentina took the pitch in the empty Stadio Olimpico. Biancocelesti boss Simone Inzaghi opted for Felipe Caicedo, Marco Parolo, and Bastos, making a change at each level of his team. Viola mister Giuseppe Carrillo—filling in for the suspended Giuseppe Iachini, who watched from the stands—returned Nikola Milenković and Pol Lirola into the XI, with Milan Badelj, Rachid Ghezzal, and Patrick Cutrone all stepping up as well in a return to the 3-5-2 (which turned into a 3-4-3 when Ghezzal moved permanently to a left wing position) due to Federico Chiesa’s suspension.
While the hosts dominated possession in the opening period, they didn’t create very much as a fantastic Fiorentina backline denied Ciro Immobile and company any space, frustrating them almost entirely besides a couple of headed chances for Parolo and Caicedo. With Lazio pushing numbers forward, the Viola found room on the counter through Franck Ribery, who pulled the strings throughout and won a number of free kicks around the area before knifing through 5 defenders from the left and placing his shot in the back of the net. That was the pattern, mostly, with the visitors breaking quickly. The other notable action was a very physical game, with Bastos quite lucky to receive only a yellow for completely upending the impressive Rachid Ghezzal.
Gaetano Castrovilli nearly doubled the lead almost straight from the restart but saw his effort on the break pushed wide by Thomas Strakosha, who barely tipped a lovely effort from Ghezzal onto the bar moments later. The breakthrough came at the other end, though, where a shameful dive from Caicedo saw referee Michael Fabbri point straight to the spot with a VAR review, which likely would have discounted the PK as the Ecuadorian threw himself to ground before Bartłomiej Drągowski touched him. The Viola unraveled after Immobile converted the penalty to equalize (and nearly doubled his tally 2 minutes later) but still offered a bit of a threat despite the obviously tired legs, but Carrillo didn’t react quickly enough. A bit of luck on the break saw Luis Alberto lash home a late winner, and a frustrated Fiorentina—justly furious about the continued presence of Bastos, Parolo, and Stefan Radu after a series of red-card worthy fouls—completely fell apart, summed up by Dušan Vlahović receiving his marching orders for an off-ball elbow on Patric. At full time, Bart nearly threw hands with Francesco Acerbi; given the goalie’s normally placid disposition, it shows the fury the Viola felt.
Drągowski—6.5: Made a fantastic save on a Parolo header in the first half and wasn’t tested too much otherwise. I refuse to grade him poorly for conceding the penalty as there wasn’t any contact, and Luis Alberto’s goal, while well taken, was just lucky.
Milenković—7: Immense as ever. Put Immobile in his pocket for 90 minutes and never let him out. Tracked up the pitch brilliantly and swept up behind with equal composure. Made good choices with the ball, but was simply superb without it.
Pezzella—6.5: The birthday boy did pretty well, marshaling his defense effectively to contain Immobile. Might have switched off a bit to let Caicedo through to win the “penalty” but that’s more on Igor.
Ceccherini—7: Really impressive outing. Dominated Immobile, tracked high up the pitch, and generally looked like an Italy international rather than a journeyman. Misjudged the cross leading to the goal, but, as I said, that’s on Igor. Otherwise, Cecche was flawless.
Lirola—5.5: Would have liked to see him dominate Jony, who’s been a whipping boy for Lazio fans all year, but it didn’t happen. Rarely got forward and didn’t accomplish much when he did. Definitely looked exhausted late on and his performance suffered for it.
Ghezzal—7: Didn’t see this coming at all, but he was really good. Constantly won fouls (probably had to ice his legs for hours after the kicking he took) and had 2 excellent shots. Contributed defensively too and only sometimes ran into cul-de-sacs. Still doesn’t combine well with teammates all the time, but this was his best performance by far since he left France.
Badelj—5.5: Solid in the first half and ragged in the second as he tired. Did typical Badelj things, keeping the ball ticking along nicely and screening the defense, but doesn’t have the legs for a more up-and-down game. Dusted by Luis Alberto for the winner and lost the ball several times late.
Castrovilli—7: Did everything you want him to do besides score. All the dribbles, wiggles, and movement were good, but could have put his team up by 2 at the start of the second half and didn’t. It was fun seeing him go body-to-body with Sergej Milinković-Savić and win several times, though. What a talent.
Dalbert—6: Had some highlight moments, particularly a moonshot that fizzed past the post, but his penchant for early bookings is a real concern. Availability is a talent, and it’s hard to keep on a reckless player who’s on a yellow. That said, his verticality down the left was a huge part of why Fiorentina looked so strong in the first half and so much weaker in the second.
Cutrone—5: Had the thankless task of battling 3 big defenders alone as Ribery dropped deep but initially seemed up for it. Battled well, ran tirelessly, and occasionally linked up with the rest of the team. His off-ball movement creates space for others, but his decision-making and inability to hold up long passes means he’s limited. Really needs to get his name on the scoresheet and fast.
Ribery—8: Magnificent. From the opening whistle, was clearly a cut above everyone else on the pitch. Constantly won fouls with his clever dribbling and created chances for teammates. His goal may be the best individual effort we’ve seen this season, too. Obviously got tired later on because he’s 37 years old but still offered some threat. Heck of a player.
Igor—5: Switched off completely on the goal, letting Caicedo steal in for a chance. Was otherwise quite good, stonewalling the Lazio attackers quite effectively. Unlucky with the bounce for Luis Alberto’s goal.
Vlahović—3: Didn’t offer much and completely lost his head late on, presenting a serious problem to the team over the next couple of games.
Venuti—5: Got stuck in well and showed some physicality, but doesn’t have Dalbert’s quality (or pace) going forward and couldn’t replicate the Brazilian’s impact, especially on his weaker side.
Sottil—5.5: Did his best Ribery impression in limited minutes, dropping into deep, central areas (he frequently picked the ball up from the defenders) and skipping away from challenges. Still want to see him play higher up and use his pace and dribbling to threaten the wide areas.
Pulgar—4.5: Delivered a really bad free kick in the game’s final action and was otherwise anonymous, although he only played 6 minutes so you can’t judge him too harshly.
Three things we learned
1. Italian referees remain hopeless. This was obviously the highlight for bad officiating, but Massimiliano Irrati was poor in Brescia-Genoa earlier in the day. Until the refs figure out when and how to use VAR, this won’t be fixed. To briefly run down the incidents that weren’t reviewed:
—a possible Badelj handball in the box in the first half
—the Bastos foul on Ghezzal (could have been a red)
—the penalty called on Drągowski (no foul)
—the penalty not called on Patric after Ribery megged him in the area
—second cardable offense by Parolo
—second cardable offense by Radu
VAR can be a useful tool, but it’s like any other tool in that it’s only as useful as the user’s understanding. For the second time this season, Rocco Commisso had to criticize the officiating. Hopefully his remarks spur a long, long look at how the system is used. Otherwise, calcio will remain the punchline to jokes about corruption in Italian football.
2. This team is too reliant on Ribery. Franck was clearly head-and-shoulders above anyone else in the squad in this one, but that’s a bit of a concern. He’s 37, prone to injuries, and can’t run for 90 minutes; none of those will improve next season, and he’s likely done after that. There’s no shortage of talent in this team, and plenty of guys who can create goals. Figuring out how to bring that out of them is a challenge that management has failed in all year.
3. The substitution patterns are simply awful. For the second straight game, Fiorentina refused to turn to the bench soon enough. It seemed pretty clear that removing Dalbert also removed the only threat of pace in behind that the Viola had offered in the first half, which meant Lazio could push higher up, safe in the knowledge that nobody would threaten in behind and create that pocket of space for Ribery and Castrovilli to work in. Sottil is tailor-made for that role, especially with Chiesa absent. Too, Ribery, Badelj, and Lirola were clearly exhausted by the 70th minute. There’s no purpose in spending big on fees and wages for backups like Marco Benassi, Kevin Agudelo, and Alfred Duncan (who were all available to a team needing goals and creativity in the middle). It’s not just this one; against Brescia, Iachini made 2 of his 5 changes deep into stoppage. This hesitance to use the bench stretches back to Vincenzo Montella. Especially with the fixtures coming thick and fast, the coaches need to give some of these guys the opportunity to prove themselves.