We’ve waited five and a half years to see Fiorentina back in Europe, and a lot has changed since then. UEFA brought in a brand-new club competition, which has given us the chance of competing in continental football again, but what other differences are there since our last appearance in Europe?
Our last European experience came during the 2016/17 season, and the team’s run in the Europe League came to an end in February 2017, at the hands of Borussia Mönchengladbach. The Della Valle brothers were still running the club, and Paolo Sousa was in his second, and final season as manager of Fiorentina. The Viola qualified directly for the group stage of the Europa League where they were drawn in Group J alongside PAOK of Greece, Qarabağ from Azerbaijan, and Czech side Slovan Liberec.
After a scoreless draw in Greece on the opening day, Fiorentina went on to win their next three group games comfortably. Qarabağ were beaten 5-1 in Florence, with Khouma Babacar and Mauro Zárate scoring two goals each and Nikola Kalinić netting the other.
They then won home and away in the double header with Slovan, scoring three goals in each game. A 3-1 away win saw Kalinić score twice and Babacar making it 3-1. In Florence in early November, a 3-0 win came courtesy of goals from Kalinić again, after Josip Iličić had opened the scoring from the penalty spot. Sebastián Cristóforo finished off the game with what would prove to be his only goal in a Fiorentina jersey.
PAOK then came to Florence later in the month, and after the Greek side took an early 2-0 lead Fiorentina pegged them back with goals from Federico Bernardeschi and Babacar. Cristóforo had an effort come down off the crossbar which looked to have crossed the line, but the goal line assistant didn’t give it, and Fiorentina went on to lose to an injury time goal.
The final group game saw Sousa’s side travel to Baku to take on Qarabağ in December. Matías Vecino put the Viola in front after an hour before Reynaldo levelled the tie 13 minutes later. It took just three minutes for Fiorentina to find the winner, a Borja Valero ball into the box was poorly dealt with by the home side, Kalinić managed to keep it in play and knock it back across the goal where an unmarked Federico Chiesa nodded it home. This was Chiesa’s first ever goal for the club.
That win meant Fiorentina finished as group winners, and in the draw for the Round of 32 they would be one of the seeded teams. On the unseeded side of the draw were the likes of Manchester United, Olympiacos and Villareal, along with four teams which had dropped down from the Champions League. Fiorentina ended up drawing one of those teams, the German side Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Borussia had finished third in their Champions League group behind Barcelona and Manchester City, their only win coming away to Celtic. Fiorentina travelled to Germany for the first leg on February 16th, which came on the back of a 3-0 home win over Udinese which kept alive our chances of European qualification in the league. Federico Bernardeschi had scored the final goal in that victory in Serie A, his goal coming from the penalty spot, and it would be another Bernardeschi dead ball situation which gave Fiorentina the win in the away leg.
The only goal came just before half time as Bernardeschi’s free kick sailed into the top corner, the perfect way to celebrate his 21st birthday. Between this win and the return leg in Florence, Fiorentina travelled to take on Milan. In another big game in the battle for Europe, this time the Viola were beaten 2-1 by Vincenzo Montella’s side, but they still had the upper hand in Europe having scored that away goal in Germany.
When Fiorentina went 2-0 up in the opening half hour in Florence it was surely game over? Kalinić and Borja Valero’s goals gave us a 3-0 aggregate lead, and it was looking like a comfortable stroll into the next round. Borussia had been dangerous and before Fiorentina took the lead, they had hit the post from a Jannik Vestergaard header, but the Viola looked to have weathered the early storm. It had been Vestergaard’s error which allowed Sousa’s side to score the second goal when he completely missed a simple back pass allowing Borja Valero in, to beat Yann Sommer in the Borussia goal,
Just before the break Borussia did pull a goal back from the penalty spot. Lars Stindl sent Ciprian Tătărușanu the wrong way to give them something to play for after the interval. It took the Germans just two minutes of the second half to silence the Franchi, apart from the large number of Borussia fans who had travelled. Stindl was again the scorer after Tătărușanu had managed to block the first attempt which came his way from the corner kick.
Borussia now had over 40 minutes to find the one goal which would complete the comeback. It took them just eight minutes when Jonas Hofmann played a free kick across the edge of the area and Stindl completed his hat-trick with a shot which found the bottom corner of the net. The German side were now ahead on away goals, but Fiorentina could still qualify with just one more goal.
Instead, it was Borussia who found another, just five minutes later, as they scored their third in the opening quarter of an hour in a crazy start to the second half. Again, it was Hofmann who began the move with a short corner for Patrick Herrmann who gave it back to Hofmann and his cross was met by the unchallenged Andreas Christensen. 4-2 on the night, 4-3 ahead on aggregate, Fiorentina now needed to find two goals to survive, but an Iličić free kick which came back off the crossbar was as close as they came.
The Fiorentina fans made their feelings known at the final whistle, and the protests continued outside the ground later, with the club, the manager, and the players all targets for their anger. Sousa hung on to his job until the end of the season, refusing to even contemplate resigning. Early in the season there had already been rumours that the club and manager were about to part ways, but Fiorentina were quick to deny the story. When Fiorentina missed out on European qualification, the fraught relationship came to an end, with Stefano Pioli taking charge for the next season.
In some ways, that finish to the European adventure may well have been the beginning of the end of an era. The summer would see Borja Valero, Bernardeschi, Iličić, Kalinić, Tătărușanu and Vecino all leave the club. From that side which lost to Borussia, not a single player is still with Fiorentina. Compare this to the German side who still have hat-trick hero Lars Stindl, goalkeeper Yann Sommer, along with Tony Jantschke, Christoph Kramer, Patrick Herrmann, and Jonas Hofmann all in their squad.
Davide Astori was a part of the Viola team that night, and his tragic death just over a year later would mark another major turning point at the club. Della Valle, after a few seasons where they had clearly lost interest in investing, eventually sold the club to Rocco Commisso. The Della Valle era in Serie A began and ended with Fiorentina surviving relegation on the final day of the season.
But between those two seasons came so many adventures in Europe, Champions League football with those famous wins over Liverpool, a UEFA Cup semi-final, Europa League semi-final, as Fiorentina competed in Europe in seven different seasons under their ownership. There are many who look back on Fiorentina’s glory days as those during the Cecchi Gori era, but it’s worth remembering that it took them six seasons, which included a relegation, before they took the club into Europe.
After a false start, a settling in period and learning what it takes to run a club in Italy, Rocco has now brought European football back to Fiorentina. Those nights at the Franchi against teams from around the continent are always something special, and now that we’re about to get a taste for it again, it’s something that we’ll all want more of.
That goes for the fans, the players, the manager, and also the club itself with an ownership who are about to experience it for the first time. It’s also something that will help to attract new players as well as hold on to the ones we have, with Nikola Milenković a perfect example of this. Fiorentina are back where they belong and where the fans deserve to see them.