After losing to Sampdoria despite looking the better team, Fiorentina get a chance to right themselves at home against perhaps Serie A’s most surprising team this year in Spezia. This will be just their 8th game ever against the Aquilotti; they hold a record of W3 D4 (yes, they’re undefeated against them), but the reverse fixture—a 2-2 draw that felt so much worse—is the only one in this century. The others are all from 1929 to 1939.
The referee for this one is 44-year-old Gianpaolo Calvarese of Teramo. In 8 Serie A games this year, he’s dished out 35 yellow cards, 1 red card, and 4 penalties, which is roughly on par with his career numbers of 4.5, 0.25, and 0.3; he’s always been a fan of pointing to the spot. In 16 games under his eye, Fiorentina are W5 D5 L6; last we saw him was the 4-3 defeat to Inter Milan, where he actually did a fairly good job, all things considered.
The match will be played Friday, 19 February 2021, at 5:30 PM GMT/12:30 PM EST, at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in beautiful Florence. The forecast calls for a typically cloudy winter day, although it shouldn’t get too cold (not that you’ll be able to guess that from the way the players will doubtless bundle up) and there’s no real chance of rain.
With just 6 points from their last 5, it’s safe to say that Fiorentina are teetering, although there are some other circumstances at play—key absences, quality of opposition, inexplicable meltdowns—that keep them from looking too dire. Still, when you’re 16th in the table with 22 points and just 7 separating you from the drop zone, a -13 goal difference, and the league’s 2nd-worst scoring record, it’s reasonable to feel pretty anxious.
Manager Cesare Prandelli will have to turn things around without CF Franck Ribery (ankle) but will get CM Sofyan Amrabat back from suspension, which will likely push Erick Pulgar back to the bench. You know what to expect from the team at this point: a 3-5-2 with all the usual suspects. Despite a bit of chatter, Prandelli squelched the rumor that Aleksandr Kokorin could start, citing the striker’s lack of fitness; that means it’ll either be Christian Kouamé (good) or Valentin Eysseric (not as good) partnering Dušan Vlahović up top. RB Martín Cáceres (back) is also fit enough to travel, but Lorenzo Venuti’s recent performances may keep him in the XI.
The first thing you notice about Spezia’s defense is that they foul more than anyone in Serie A. They’ve already earned 5 (!) red cards this season and have conceded 6 penalties, joint-most in the division. That trouble in stopping good dribblers means that Gaetano Castrovilli will have shoulder a massive burden to jet forward, linking play and winning fouls. That said, Spezia are quite good at harrying opponents through the middle, so Sofyan Amrabat will also carry a huge responsibility to keep things ticking in possession. It’s also worth noting that the Aquilotti excel at limiting crosses, which could see Cristiano Biraghi run into a lot of dead ends.
In their first Serie A season ever, the Ligurians have impressed immensely. They’ve bulled their way to 13th in the table and have taken 7 points from their past 5 matches, although that hardly tells the story: they’ve won at Sassuolo and against AC Milan in that stretch, as well as taking AS Roma to the wire in a 4-3 thriller. Clearly, this is not a fluke team. They’re good, disciplined, and way more skillful than you’d expect from a club in its first ever top-flight campaign. They fully deserve their spot in the standings.
Manager Vincenzo Italiano has done a magnificent job but will have to conjure forth more magic. He’ll be absent star man and 9-goal CF M’bala Nzola (ankle) as well as LW Diego Farías (hip), RB Federico Mattiello (thigh), LB Simone Bastoni (suspension), and CB Martin Erlić (suspension); that won’t change his usual 4-3-3 setup. We’ll likely see former Viola players Kevin Agudelo and Riccardo Saponara; the latter started at striker last week in the upset over the Rossoneri, but Andrey Galabinov could replace him up front as well.
Spezia are a slightly odd club. They like to hit long balls and play on the break, but they also average 51% possession, largely deep in their own half, as they try to tempt opponents forward before bypassing the press with direct passes into a quick and technical front three. With the superb Nzola out, Emmanuel Gyasi’s searing pace becomes even more important. This is also a pretty good team from set pieces: Matteo Ricci is a good taker and they’ve got some big bodies to throw into the mix, which is how they’ve earned 7 goals from set pieces. They’re also not afraid to get the fullbacks, particularly Gianluca Vignali, forward to cross. Basically, this is a much better, more cohesive, and adventurous outfit than your usual newly-promoted outfit.
How to watch
TV: Nah, but you can check the full international television listings if you don’t believe me.
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Ted’s Memorial Blind Guess Department
Hopefully, having Amrabat and Castrovilli together in midfield will help Fiorentina bypass Spezia’s energetic press in the midfield. Similarly, another week of Vlahović and Kouamé getting to know each other up front could pay big dividends. For the visitors, all the absences could finally add up to a loss here, despite the momentum of two straight wins over top-8 sides. That’s why I’m calling a 2-1 win for the good guys, with Vlahović and Kouamé on the scoresheet for the hosts and Agudelo (duh) for the visitors.