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Holy smokes, Fiorentina was incredible 10 years ago

It’s been a decade since the demise of the last truly beautiful and romantic Viola side.

ACF Fiorentina v FC Internazionale Milano - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

With nothing of interest going on in world soccer, let’s take a moment to fall into a trance and recall some glories of years past. Specifically, I want you to hop into the time machine with me and go back a decade, back to the 2012-2013 season, and have a look at Fiorentina. It’s going to be so much fun.

First, let me set the scene. The Viola had just come off their most catastrophic season since returning to Serie A in 2004. Siniša Mihajlović had been sacked after a couple of lackluster, Beppe Iachini-esque seasons at the helm. Despite European ambitions set during the magical Cesare Prandelli era, Fiorentina were slumping and a loss to relegation battlers Chievo Verona was the death knell for Miha. Out he went and in came Delio Rossi, who didn’t improve the team at all and is best known for attacking Adem Ljajić after subbing the Serbian off against Novara.

After a brief Vincenzo Guerini interlude (Fiorentina’s best coach ever by win percentage, given that he never lost a match), the Della Valle brothers saw the fan unrest—Diego pulled back even further from the day-to-day running of the team while Andrea had one of his many fallings out with the supporters—and turned to 38-year-old Vincenzo Montella.

Montella had just led Catania to a mid-table spot in the top flight (pretty much the last time we saw them) in his first senior managerial job. The AS Roma legend wasn’t the only new face in the office, though, as long-time sporting director Pantaleo Corvino moved on, with Daniele Pradè replacing him; the latter had worked at Roma with Montella while the Aeroplanino managed the youth team and then the first team on an interim basis.

They immediately began overhauling the squad, with Montella prioritizing strapping defenders, technical midfielders, and quick forwards. Out went Juan Manuel Vargas, Riccardo Montolivo, Valon Behrami, Alessio Cerci, Alessandro Gamberini, Per Krøldrup, Matija Nastasić, Lorenzo de Silvestri, Artur Boruc, Andrea Lazzari, Marco Marchionni, Cesare Natali, Amauri, and Houssine Kharja. They were all either regular starters or long-time members of the squad.

In came (deep breath) Borja Valero, Gonzalo Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado, David Pizarro, Stefan Savić, Matías Fernández, Alberto Aquilani, Emiliano Viviano, Facundo Roncaglia, and Nenad Tomović. Luca Toni made his triumphant return as well, while youngsters like Ryder Matos, Michele Camporese, and Federico Bernardeschi earned more prominent roles. Even at the time, it was pretty clearly a sea change for for a team that had gone rather stale, and we were cautiously optimistic.

We were proved wrong pretty quickly, because there was no need for caution. Fiorentina was good again. They beat the bad but fell to Napoli and Inter Milan in the early going, although they did hold Juventus to a goalless draw. Then the victories over big sides started to pile up. 2-0 over Lazio. 1-3 at AC Milan. 4-1 against Atalanta. This group of upstarts had taken one look at Serie A and decided it could do the business against anyone on any day. And then did it.

It wasn’t just that Fiorentina was winning, though. It was how Fiorentina was winning. While Montella’s formation was nominally a 3-5-2, it often shifted into a 4-3-3 or something else entirely. The constants were 3 big, rugged defenders stopping everything at the back, Manuel Pasqual spamming in crosses from the left, and Cuadrado running rampant on the right. Ljajić joined Stevan Jovetić up front in an unconventional strike pairing which meandered all over the pitch, looking for space and looking to drive a defenses without really offering a reference point.

What made it all hum, though, was the funnest midfield in Serie A. While Barcelona wowed the world with their possession-based system, nobody had really tried anything similar in Italy before. The Three Tenors of Valero, Pek, and Aquilani, with frequent cameos from Matigol and Giulio “Tankman” Migliaccio, kept the ball ticking all over the park, running opponents ragged as they needled, needled, needled defenses until finally a crack appeared.

Pizarro set the tone, consistently getting over a hundred touches per game from his regista spot. Instead of just playing short passes, though, the Chilean’s signature was sweeping balls out to the flanks, giving the attackers opportunities to dribble at defenders. Valero, in contrast, played higher and wider, sometimes almost on the left wing, always finding a pass into a teammate in space ahead of him; it looked so simple but his vision and touch were always superlative. Aquilani was the X-factor, sometimes vanishing for dozens of minutes before popping up in the box for a goal, or deep for a gorgeous long pass, after his colleagues had lulled everyone to sleep. They were perfect and beautiful.

By the winter break, they’d hauled themselves into a highly unexpected 5th place, ahead of Roma and Milan and even with Inter on 35 points. Not content with what he’d seen, Pradè went out and added Giuseppe Rossi (although he wouldn’t feature until the following season as he recovered from injury), along with backups Marvin Compper and Mohamed Sissoko.

The pressure mounted to get a conventional number 9 all January, as Fiorentina suffered a serious drop to start 2013. Losses against Udinese, Pescara, and Catania reinforced the traditionalists’ criticism that keeping the ball was only for aesthetes and didn’t mean anything. A tough loss to Roma in the Coppa Italia added some sting. The only positive that month was a 1-1 draw against Napoli, courtesy of a completely intentional and not-at-all fluky Roncaglia bomb from inside his own half.

A win against Parma saw the fortunes perhaps reversing, but a comprehensive defeat at Juve the next week neatly excised that optimism. Then, against Inter, Fiorentina produced their best performance of the season: a 4-1 win featuring braces for both Ljajić and Jovetić, with each goal better than the last. Stevan flicked on a Pasqual corner for Adem to acrobatically head home. Then the Montegrin hit a fabulous curling effort from the edge of the box, followed by a thump from a spinning Cuadrado backheel. The Serbian rounded it off with a giro of his own. And, just like that, the dam broke and Fiorentina were back, back, back.

The dropped 10 points from their last 13 fixtures, and even though they fell to 6th the week after the famous win over the Nerazzurri after coughing up a defeat against Bologna, you could feel the belief setting in. They lurked in 6th for a couple of weeks before leapfrogging Inter and Lazio in the 29th matchweek, snatching a 4th-place position they’d never relinquish. Even then, though, they weren’t satisfied, and kept the pressure on Milan all the way to the end for 3rd and a spot in the Champions League.

They were incredible down the stretch, scoring 27 and conceding 14 in some classic matches: a 2-2 against Milan in which a 10-man Fiorentina came back from 0-2 down to earn a point behind a tactical masterclass from Montella; a last-gasp 4-3 over Torino with a Cuadrado cucchiao; and a 1-5 romp over Pescara in the season-ender. Even without that star striker, they wrapped up the year as the 2nd-leading scorers in the division, just 1 behind Napoli, with a balanced attack led by Jovetić (13 goals, 5 assists), Ljajić (11 goals, 5 assists), Zio Luca Toni (8 goals, 4 assists), Aquilani (7 goals, 6 assists), and Bomber Gonzalo (6 goals, 3 assists as a central defender). Valero chipped in 13 assists and Pasqual added 7 more.

Alas, this was back in the days when Serie A had just 3 Champions League places after a decade of miserable performances in the Europa League, allowing Germany to take that 4th CL spot on coefficient points. This Fiorentina, full of fresh faces and big ideas, deserved to play on the biggest stage, but it wasn’t meant to be. They went to the UEFA Cup instead.

They’d repeat that feat the following two years, but I want to stick with the 2012-2013 season. This wasn’t just a joyful return to the upper echelons of the table after a 3-year absence. It was a collection of incredibly charismatic players who seemed to genuinely love each other and the city, from Valero becoming the true mayor of Florence to Gonzalo partnering up with a local gelato store owner. Toni’s always loved the city, and Aquilani returned to the club to lead the Primavera to a unprecedented run of success.

More than those famous names and narratives, though, this season was about Cuadrado slithering through defenses and salsa dancing with an enormous smile. It was Pizarro twisting away from bigger, faster defenders time and again. Hell, it was Marcelo Larrondo leathering in a goal against Torino and celebrating like he’d won the lottery. That season was pure magic. It was an infectious joy that lasted all season and turned Fiorentina into every neutral’s favorite club. It was, perhaps, the last time that this team was perfect despite its shortfalls and imperfections.

And that’s how it’ll stay forever, in that misty land that exists equidistant between memory and intervening years. I remember Romulo’s strike for the win against Genoa perfectly, or Jovetić’s strike against Inter, or Andrea Della Valle losing his mind in the stands, but they’ve got the golden aura usually associated with Titian or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, reminders of a more beautiful past that grows ever more lustrous as the flaws leach out of it, leaving only a body full of warmth that lasts until the end of your days.