SPAL boss Luigi di Biagio rotated things for his side’s last hurrah in Serie A; enormous young goalkeeper Demba Thiam made his first start, while Carlos Cuellar got a rare chance up top. Ex-Viola players Bryan Dabo and Nenad Tomović also featured.
Giuseppe Iachini had promised to experiment, and his lineup showed some signs of that: Federico Ceccherini and Igor joined the defense while Kevin Agudelo got his first start for Fiorentina in midfield. Dušan Vlahović got a rare chance up top with Federico Chiesa.
Since this game didn’t have any real impact for either club, it started pretty lackadaisically. Fiorentina generated a number of half chances without really looking good—Federico Chiesa looked quite sharp—and SPAL had one or two opportunities, including a Mohamed Fares lob that clipped Pietro Terracciano’s crossbar. Alfred Duncan scored his first goal after some nice work by Agudelo and a neat layoff from Chiesa; the Ghanaian positively leathered his finish past the impressive Thiam. SPAL equalized after Pol Lirola lost the ball for no reason at all; Marco D’Alessandro’s finish was lovely, but yikes should that have not happened.
Fiorentina forged forward and Agudelo, Vlahović (twice), Lorenzo Venuti, Erick Pulgar (twice), Riccardo Sottil (twice), and especially Patrick Cutrone all could have taken the lead with a bit more composure, but instead chose to shoot straight at Thiam or at the clouds. It was just before full time when Christian Kouamé got his first Viola goal, rising well at the front post to glance home a Pulgar corner past Thiam, who was rather caught in no man’s land. Fede won a penalty not long after as he popped one over Kevin Bonifazi’s head, then got harpooned by the defender for his trouble. Pulgar stepped up and slotted the penalty home without any real trouble, and that was that.
Terracciano—6.5: Not tested all that much but did make a couple of strong saves, particularly on D’Alessandro’s second shot. Was quite quick coming off his line and sweeping up, as usual. Not at fault for the goal, but did look a bit out at sea on Fares’ lob that hit the bar.
Milenković—5.5: Looked a bit disinterested, honestly, and seemed to lose runners in the box at times. Not going to hold it against him, as this was a dead rubber match, but this wasn’t the Nikola we’ve seen over the past month.
Ceccherini—6: Was pretty solid. Put a block on a dangerous D’Alessandro shot and looked good sweeping up behind. Had a couple of overly-ambitious passes that ceded possession for no reason, but looked like what he is in the best possible way.
Igor—6.5: Led the team in touches and happily stepped forward on the ball to add another body in midfield. Closed down high up the pitch quite well. Made a couple of key interventions. Is also built like Optimus Prime.
Venuti—6.5: Another very good performance. Always in space to serve as the out ball to beat the press, then carried it forward well. Hit a couple of really good crosses that deserved better finishes and defended adequately. Undeniably better than Lirola over the past month.
Agudelo—6.5: Always wanted to make something happen, although he did overplay several situations. Crucial in the opening goal and was a whisker away from scoring one of his own just after the half. Still not quite ready to be a week-in, week-out starter, but can definitely hang at this level. Also, Kevin!
Pulgar—7: A goal and an assist for the metronomic midfielder. Kept the ball ticking along nicely, showing a particular affinity for spreading it to the wingbacks in space. Didn’t do super well defensively but was adequate. And hey, the counting stats count for something.
Duncan—7: Took his goal brilliantly and generally looked quite good. Always seemed just a bit peripheral to the action but always looked great when he’s on the ball. Imagine if Benassi never lost possession and you’ve got a basic idea. Perfect third midfielder.
Lirola—4: Woof. Gave the ball away a lot and struggled with D’Alessandro. Had a few nice moments going forward—an early cross for Dušan, the header back across for Vlahović, a cross that just missed Cutrone—but was, on the whole, a definite negative. Clearly doesn’t like to stretch play on the left and always comes inside onto his right, which makes him very predictable and takes him into traffic.
Chiesa—7.5: Just superb. Played extremely selflessly, always trying to involve teammates rather than shooting. Switched from wing to wing and drove in behind. Led the press fantastically. Orchestrated nearly everything good in the attack. Dropped a shoulder when necessary but mostly looked to involve everyone else. If he stays in this mindset, he could be the best winger in Italy next year.
Vlahović—3.5: Poor guy’s got a very serious case of the yips. Missed two point blank headers. Seemed like every shot he took got blocked. Lost the ball needlessly. You can tell that he’s on the verge of a breakthrough but isn’t quite there, and you can tell he’s more frustrated than anyone about it. The offseason arrives at just the right time for him.
Kouamé—7: Loved the goal (even if Thiam could’ve done better), but it was his work off the ball that impressed the most. Dropped in very deep to help the defense and showcased a tremendous work rate. Hit another one of those jaw-dropping cross field passes on the break. With a full preseason, he’s going to be a dang tank.
Sottil—6: Bit weird for Ricky. Constantly dribbled past opponents and used his pace to give the Estensi defense fits, but the end product remains elusive for him. Feels like he needs more time on the pitch to reach that next level; let’s all hope and pray he gets it next year.
Cutrone—4: Almost entirely invisible. Centimeters from reaching a Lirola cross, but his miss just before the goal was really bad. On the plus side, watching him celebrate with Kouamé was really cute.
Terzić—n/a: He still lives!
Dalle Mura—n/a: Yeah, it was a couple meaningless minutes, but he’s a senior player now.
Three things we learned
1. This team plays for Beppe. Fiorentina started out pretty fecklessly, got a goal, then conceded a fluke. A lot of sides would’ve just shrugged and packed it in. Instead, Iachini spiked a water bottle on the sideline at the restart and Fiorentina broke forward in wave after wave, finally getting the goals to reflect their dominance. Whatever the mister said to these guys in the dressing room worked, as they were superb. Granted, SPAL is the best imaginable argument to contract Serie A to 18 teams, but they’re still professionals. Seeing a Viola team that didn’t give up, even when luck seemed against it, was mightily refreshing.
2. Even in victory, this isn’t a fun club to watch. SPAL are comically inept going forward—27 goals in 28 matches (that’s 8 less than Brescia, who boasted the next-worst attack)—but Fiorentina still let them put 4 shots on target and even hit the crossbar. The bigger concern is that the Biancazzurri, who have a possession rate of 47.6% on the year, saw 51.4% in this one. Experimental lineup aside, Fiorentina are going to have to keep and use the ball with a lot more purpose if they want to improve as a team. This aversion to holding dictating play is a massive weakness that any competent team can take advantage of.
3. I love all of you. Ugh. Between Vincenzo Montella’s utter disinterest, Franck Ribery’s injuries and suspensions, Federico Chiesa’s obvious anxiety, the forwards’ inability to score for 75% of the year, a somnambulant midfield, and an aesthetically-grating and possession-allergic approach, this could’ve been a miserable season for any Viola fan. Throw in the genuine horror of the coronavirus, though, and it’s incredible that this team held together. The only thing that kept me going through this shit show was yall. Old and new voices in this community reminded me again of why I do this, even as I’m desperately trying to patch together previews and highlights and post mortems. Thank you, everyone, for making this season remotely tolerable. I love you all, individually and collectively, and wouldn’t trade you for the world.