Fiorentina head into their final Conference League match with no pressure: they’re all but assured finishing 2nd in Group A, unless Heart of Midlothian shellack Başakşehir and the Viola themselves put Rīgas Futbola Skola (RFS) to the sword as well. The reverse fixture ended in a stunning 1-1 draw in which the good guys were woeful in front of goal, although the apotheosis of Pāvels Šteinbors had quite a bit to do with it as well.
The referee is 39-year-old Mads-Kristoffer Kristoffersen of Denmark. In 15 total games this year, he’s handed out 71 yellow cards, 3 red cards, and an astounding 11 penalties, so don’t be surprised if he ends up as part of the story, especially since the Conference Leauge doesn’t use VAR. He’s never handled a senior match featuring an Italian side (although he has reffed several for youth teams). Weirdly enough, he’s previously worked this ground, too, back in 2015.
The match will be played on Thursday, 3 November 2022, at 3:30 PM GMT/11:30 AM EST, at the Skonto Stadions in Riga; RFS’ usual ground, the LNK Sporta Parks, doesn’t meet UEFA requirements, so the venue has been moved to the city’s 2nd-largest stadium. The forecast calls for a pretty chilly day, although it’s honestly not as frigid as one might’ve feared, although the 400 traveling fans (a sizeable portion of the 8027-seater building) will probably be bundled up to the eyebrows.
In 3rd place in the Virsliga (7 points behind leaders Valmiera) with 2 games left and mathematically eliminated from the Conference League, RFS have nothing left to play for this season but pride. That can, of course, be manifested in different ways: either the players are already mentally on vacation and won’t be fussed to put up a real fight, or they’ll play without pressure and look to express themselves. Having seen how resolute this group was in the reverse fixture, the latter feels far more likely.
Manager Viktors Morozs won’t have CB Vitālijs Jagodinskis but should have the rest of his squad available. The real question is whether he’ll use his usual back 4 or revert to the back 5 he’s used in 4 of 5 Conference League matches; with nothing on the line, it wouldn’t be a shock if he went 4-2-3-1, but the smart money’s on the same slightly lopsided 5-4-1 we saw in Florence.
RFS have a bunch of big, rugged dudes at the back, so expect them to defend deep and play very directly. LW Emerson (14 goals, 7 assists) will stay much higher up, often forming more of a front two with CF Andrej Ilić (17 goals, 6 assists) as they try to work the channels, get in behind, and combine for quick goals. RW Kevin Friessenbichler (9 goals, 12 assists) offers a good blend of passing and mobility on the right, and CF Deniss Rakels (13 goals, 3 assists) provides depth.
After a nightmarish start to the season, it feels as if Fiorentina are starting to wake back up. A heartbreaking defeat to Inter Milan that probably deserved at least a point along with wins over Başakşehir and Spezia have the Viola feeling a bit more hopeful of late. Even though this fixture is ultimately meaningless, a good result could help them build momentum through the final 3 games of Serie A before the World Cup break. Which, of course, remains the stupidest thing in the world to write about a game in early November.
Manager Vincenzo Italiano won’t have DM Sofyan Amrabat, RW Nicolás González, or LW Riccardo Sottil, so Christian Kouamé will serve as the primary inspiration in attack again. There are selection dilemmas all over the pitch—Luka Jović (who’s not making friends) or Arthur Cabral, Riccardo Saponara or Jonathan Ikoné, Igor or Lucas Martínez Quarta—but there’ve been early rumors that we could see a debut for Alessandro Bianco in midfield, although Italiano rather squelched those in his pre-match presser. Still, we could see a heavily-rotated side since qualification is sewn up here; Italiano’s penchant for surprises could be fully indulged here.
Over the past few matches, Fiorentina have played a much less patient, more direct style: they’ve averaged under 50% possession over their past 2 matches after winning that statistic in 55 of 61 previous games under Italiano. While the Viola should still control the ball, they’ll likely play more vertically than usual, looking to either get in behind quickly or give themselves the opportunity to counter-press and attack a short field. It’s a rather risky strategy at times, as it introduces chaos into the proceedings, but it seems to be working for this group of late, particularly against deeper defenses.
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Ted’s Memorial Blind Guess Department
Fiorentina are the big favorites here at pretty much every house taking bets on this one, and it’s not hard to see why: they’ve got 10 points from 5 matches in the group stage while RFS have 2. Despite the 2200 km/1370 mi journey and the oddly early kickoff time, the Tuscans look to be rounding into form at the right time, while RFS, as previously mentioned, have played their final meaningful game of the season already.
I’ll call it a 1-3 win to the visitors, with Cabral, Kouamé (who tops the Conference League assists chart with 5), and Barák on the scoresheet for the good guys, with Emerson pulling one back after a typical Viola defensive blunder as the good guys control the game well enough to pip first place but don’t get the help in the other dead rubber match in Group A.