Fiorentina’s return to European competition sees them go up against FC Twente for the first time ever. We do, however, have some experience of competing with Dutch sides. Here’s a look at the story so far.
The last time Fiorentina faced a side from the Netherlands was during the 2008/09 season. The Viola would take on Ajax in the last ever edition of the UEFA Cup before it became the Europa League. Fiorentina had begun the season in the Champions League, returning to Europe’s top competition for the first time since the 1999/2000 campaign. Cesare Prandelli’s side came through a preliminary round against Slavia Prague to reach the group stages.
They were handed a tough draw and placed in Group F alongside Bayern Munich, Lyon, and Steaua Bucharest. Fiorentina managed to draw at home to Bayern and away to the French club, but the only win of our group campaign came on the final day. A 1-0 victory in Bucharest courtesy of a goal from Alberto Gilardino meant the Viola finished third in the group and were now placed in the UEFA Cup.
Ajax had finished second in their UEFA Cup group, behind Hamburg and ahead of Aston Villa. They lost to the English side on the opening day, but they did win away to the Germans before a draw on the final day against Slavia Prague. The team that Fiorentina had beaten earlier in the season were winning 2-1 in Amsterdam before Ajax were awarded a penalty in injury time. The player who stepped up and converted the spot kick was 22-year-old Luis Suárez. The Uruguayan had joined Ajax the previous season from another Dutch side Groningen, we’ll hear more about them later.
Both Ajax and Fiorentina were now in the draw for the last 32 in the UEFA Cup. Held on December 19th, 2008, as one of the group runners-up, Ajax knew they would be drawn against one of the teams dropping down from the Champions League, and also that they would play the return leg at home. Another possible opponent of Fiorentina’s in that draw was none other than Twente, who had finished behind Manchester City in their group and ahead of PSG.
Out of the pot came Ajax, and Fiorentina would host the first leg in Florence on February 19th. That game came four days after Fiorentina’s comeback against Genoa, when Adrian Mutu’s hat-trick gave Prandelli’s side a draw having gone 3-0 down. For the game with Ajax Prandelli made five changes from the Genoa thriller, with Luciano Zauri, Massimo Gobbi, Manuel Pasqual, Franco Semioli, and Felipe Melo coming in, replacing Gianluca Comotto, Juan Vargas, Zdravko Kuzmanović, Marco Donadel, and Stevan Jovetić. Melo had been suspended for the Genoa game, but Prandelli was still without Mario Santana and Martin Jørgensen through injury.
Marco Van Basten was the Ajax manager, and his starting eleven included Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg, Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen, Serbian winger Miralem Sulejmani, along with Luis Suárez. The Dutch were without the injured Spanish midfielder Gabri and Argentinian forward
Darío Cvitanich. Gabri had been injured in their most recent league game, a 2-0 win over Feyenoord, where Vermaelen and Urby Emanuelson were the scorers.
With a large number of Ajax fans expected, the sale of alcohol was banned in the area around the Franchi from 2 pm in the afternoon until midnight. Many had already arrived the day before, giving them plenty of time to see the city, and enjoy the beer while they could. There had been trouble before that league game with Feyenoord, leading the authorities of both Amsterdam and Rotterdam to make the drastic decision to ban away fans in the clashes between the sides for the next five years. Before the game win Florence, the police had their work cut out trying to prevent clashes between both sets of supporters, with a number of Ajax fans arrested.
Those arrested missed a chance to see their side come away from Florence with a 1-0 win. It was a poor Fiorentina performance, with Gilardino and Montolivo missing the best of the chances. Frey had little to do apart from a save from Suárez, and there was little the keeper could do when Ajax waltzed through the Fiorentina defence on the hour mark.
Suárez beat the offside and received the ball close to the goal line and put in a cross which substitute Leonardo headed back, Emanuelson held off Dario Dainelli before laying the ball off to Kennedy Bakircioglu who had time to take a couple of touches before firing a shot which came down off the bar and into the goal. The only goal of the game giving Ajax the win and an away goal to take back to Amsterdam for the return leg a week later.
Afterwards Prandelli was still optimistic about his side’s chances of progressing “I’m absolutely convinced that we can reverse the result. Now, let’s try to recuperate for Sunday, we have a tough game with Chievo. After that we’ll start thinking about the return game, but I’m convinced we can do it”. In that home game with Chievo, the Viola came from behind to win 2-1 thanks to Gilardino and a late goal from Mutu, in a game which saw them booed off at half time.
Ajax also came from behind at home to win their league tie with FC Volendam, with Suárez and Vermaelen the scorers. Despite the win, Ajax left the field to whistles from the crowd, and Van Basten was a man under pressure who had fallen out with the Ajax ultras, they weren’t fans of how he had the team playing, and at their lack of success.
For the game at the Amsterdam Arena, Prandelli replaced Dainelli and Gobbi with Marco Donadel and Per Krøldrup. Van Basten changed his keeper, with Kenneth Vermeer coming in for Stekelenburg, while Jan Vertonghen came in to bolster their defence with the manager seemingly content to sit on their lead. Gabri returned from injury, and the goal scorer from Florence, Bakircioglu, was left out.
Vermeer showed his class in goal when making an early double save from two close-range efforts by Semioli and Mutu. Fiorentina were clearly the better side, but needed to score, and after those early chances they struggled to create anything meaningful in front of goal. Frey had been called into action, blocking a shot from Suárez, but Fiorentina looked in control of the game. After the break Alessandro Gamberini hit the post with a header from a Semioli cross. When the ball came back into play Vermeer again pulled off a fine save smothering the effort of Gilardino. Frey too had to be at his best, getting down low to parry a Suárez free kick, but finally Fiorentina found the goal they deserved.
With just over an hour played the duo of Mutu-Gilardino proved decisive. Gilardino challenged a defender in the air for a ball outside the area and when the loose ball came to Mutu he controlled it before turning and playing a beautiful over head pass into the path of Gila who took it on his knee before shooting and this time Vermeer was finally beaten.
The tie was now level on aggregate, both sides had one away goal each, another for Fiorentina would probably kill the game off. Prandelli then replaced Semioli with Jørgensen and Donadel with Almiron, with Leonardo and Vurnon Anita coming on for Ajax. It would be Leonardo who would prove the decisive change as it was Ajax and not Fiorentina who started to exert more pressure.
With just two minutes left on the clock and the game heading for extra-time, the Brazilian went on a solo run from out on the left wing. He went through a group of defenders getting the luck of the bounce and his shot from the edge of the area flew past Frey and into the bottom corner.
Prandelli made one last desperate attempt to salvage the tie when he threw on Jovetić for Zauri, but it was all too late. Van Basten admitted they had gotten out of jail “Fiorentina dominated the game; we were very lucky. We had so many difficulties, they were faster and smarter. We could only limit the damage, extend the game, and hope for a hit and a draw. We have been lucky”.
Small consolation for Prandelli and his players, out of Europe. Ajax went out in the next round, knocked out by Marseille after extra-time, the same team which had beaten Twente in the previous round on penalties.
Ajax are the last Dutch side we have met in European competition until now, and also the only club from the Netherlands to have won against us and the only Dutch club to knock us out. Fiorentina have met two other Dutch clubs and those meetings all occurred in the season before the Ajax disappointment.
The 2006/07 season was when Fiorentina made their first entrance into Europe since Diego Della Valle had taken over. After two consecutive promotions had brought us back to Serie A, the first couple of seasons back in the top flight were filled with plenty of drama and controversy. The first campaign back saw the Viola struggle and only avoid relegation on the final day of the season. Then came the arrival of Cesare Prandelli, bringing with it a change of fortunes on the field, but more trouble away from the pitch.
Under Prandelli Fiorentina climbed the table and finished the season in fourth place, enough to qualify for the preliminary rounds of the Champions League. Then came Calciopoli, our European place was taken away, and the following season looked like being another fight against relegation as we began the campaign on minus 15 points.
When the Viola lost three of their opening four games it seems impossible now to imagine that they could make such a miraculous recovery and end the season in sixth place, level on points with Palermo on fifth, and a place in the UEFA Cup. Without the punishment of 15 points, we would have finished ahead of Lazio and Milan and finished third and into the Champions League.
So, in the end, just like the Fiorentina of Rocco Commisso, that of Diego Della Valle also qualified for Europe at the end of their third season in Serie A. Just like this season, the Fiorentina of 2007/08 would need to come through a qualifying round to make it to the group stage, and just like this season, the team which stood in their way was a Dutch team, which many hadn’t really heard much about before then.
Groningen, where the Koeman brothers Ronald and Erwin both began their careers as had Arjen Robben, at the time had never won a trophy. The previous season they had finished in eight place in the Eredivisie (Twente were 15 points ahead of them in fourth spot) but the Dutch league likes to give everyone a chance, and so this put them into the play-offs to qualify for Europe.
They defeated both Feyenoord and Utrecht to clinch a place in the Europa League, while Twente lost their Dutch league play-off for a Champions League place, with Ajax taking that spot. Twente would also enter the UEFA Cup at the same stage as Groningen, as Fiorentina, and also Ajax, who had lost their qualifier in the Champions League.
It was called the First Round, but it was essentially a play-off round, as the winners would qualify for the Group Stage. Before that there had been two qualifying rounds, and in this first round draw there would be another three Italian clubs, Empoli, Palermo, and Sampdoria. The draw was made on August 31st which paired Fiorentina with Groningen, and the Dutch club would host the first leg.
That first game was scheduled for September 20th, and at this stage Fiorentina had already played three league matches, winning the opener against Empoli before two draws with Milan and Atalanta. Groningen were four games into their league campaign which had opened with a 3-0 win at NAC Breda, but they had since lost two home games including the most recent defeat to Utrecht, while in between those two losses they had drawn away to Ajax.
Their recent signing from Sweden, Marcus Berg, had scored twice in that game with Ajax. His goals would need to make up for the recent departure of Luis Suárez who had got the move he wanted to Ajax. Suárez scored in that Ajax draw against his former club, and after Berg put Groningen back in front the final goal of the game was scored by Klaas Jan Huntelaar. The name Huntelaar haunted Fiorentina’s calciomercato rumour mill for what seemed like every season a few years later.
The beginning to Fiorentina’s season and the build up to the trip to the Netherlands was accompanied by the debate between Fiorentina fans, Giampaolo Pazzini or Christian Vieri? Pazzini the 23-year-old had been at the club since 2005, but with Luca Toni now gone from Fiorentina, he was expected to take on the responsibility of providing the goals for Prandelli’s side. Vieri, at 34, had nothing left to prove, except the fact that he should still be playing. He had arrived on a free transfer, to provide support for Pazzini and Mutu, with Pablo Osvaldo also now in the squad.
Pazzini had scored in that opening day win over Empoli, while Vieri had come on as a sub and netted his first goal in the most recent game with Atalanta. Prandelli was expected to stick with Pazzini for the European game, but it was Vieri who lined out alongside Mutu. For this Fiorentina’s debut in Europe, Prandelli may have preferred the experience of Vieri in a delicate away tie. Mutu and Pasqual had both been doubts before the trip having picked up knocks against Atalanta but in the end, they recovered to make the starting eleven.
The game took place on a Thursday evening at the Euroborg stadium, which had only been opened in 2006. Groningen’s manager had spent some time in Italy watching Fiorentina’s drawn games with both Milan and Atalanta. He thanked the club for the hospitality during his visit and declared himself a fan of Prandelli’s attacking football. That manager will now be back in Florence, as he is none other than Ron Jans, the current manager of FC Twente.
Somewhere in the region of one thousand fans travelled to support Fiorentina in their return to Europe. There had been a few minor clashes in the city on the day of the game but nothing serious. Along with replacing Pazzini with Vieri, Prandelli also brought in Krøldrup at the back, the Dane replacing Dainelli and lining out alongside Tomáš Ujfaluši, Gamberini and Pasqual. Semioli and Fabio Liverani kept their places in midfield with Gobbi and Donadel making way for Montolivo and Michele Pazienza.
It was Groningen who started the strongest, creating the early chances. Frey pulled off an instinctive save from a Rasmus Lindgren header while Martijn Meerdink sent a shot from outside the area high over the bar. The home side made the deserved breakthrough after 25 minutes when a Stef Nijland cross found Goran Lovre all alone in the box and he sent his header past Frey and into the far corner. The goal at least seemed to wake Prandelli’s side from their slumber, and before the interval they did manage to create some chances, Vieri’s tame effort easily gathered by the keeper and Mutu sending a header wide.
At half-time Prandelli replaced a disappointing Pazienza with Kuzmanović and with just 12 minutes played after the break, Vieri was hauled off and on came Pazzini. It was Pazzini who created the goal to level the game, faced with a defender just outside the Groningen area he laid the ball off to Semioli who hit it first time and the ball whizzed past Brian van Loo in the goal. Fiorentina still had over 20 minutes to find a winner and a second away goal, with the best chance falling to Kuzmanović but he couldn’t keep his effort on target from a tight angle. Groningen also pushed for a winner but in the end both sides had to settle for a 1-1 draw. Fiorentina had the away goal to take back to Florence, but they had been far from impressive.
Fiorentina arrived home at 3am the next morning, and Sunday they were faced with another away trip to Catania. An early Mutu goal gave Fiorentina the win there, and with the return leg coming two weeks after the first, they had another two league games to play before welcoming the Dutch. A 2-2 draw with Roma was followed by a 3-0 win at Livorno leaving Fiorentina unbeaten after six rounds of the league as they sat third in the league behind Juventus and Inter. Groningen played two league matches before facing Fiorentina again, winning both.
It was a big week for Fiorentina, Thursday October 4th they were playing to stay in Europe, and Sunday they would host Juventus at the Franchi. The Groningen fans arrived en masse, and a large portion of the 2,000 were considered violent and dangerous. The night before the game saw a clash between the rival fans in a city centre pub and on the afternoon of the game a group of 500 Groningen followers brought the city centre to a standstill. They gathered in Piazza Duomo throughout the day, before marching down Via Cavour as far as far as Piazza San Marco. It passed off without incident, apart from a trail of broken bottles left behind, and the police escorted them onto the buses to take them to the stadium.
The only change Prandelli made from the first leg was replacing Pazienza with Donadel, as Ron Jans also made just one change as Marcus Berg came in for Nijland. The opening half saw Groningen happy to sit back and break on the counter, and Fiorentina’s only real chance fell to Mutu. From a Vieri cross the Romanian managed to hit the crossbar from close range.
At half-time Jans replaced Berg with Koen van de Laak and with ten minutes gone in the second half he helped set up the goal which stunned the home crowd. Rasmus Lindgren played a pass towards the sub who was outside the area, van de Laak backheeled it on to Erik Nevland who hit it first time with Ujfaluši not getting close enough to close him down. The shot gave Frey no chance as it sailed into the top corner as Groningen not only took the lead but had now also cancelled out Fiorentina’s single away goal.
Prandelli straight away replaced Liverani with Santana in an effort to get back on level terms. Nevland had been Groningen’s highest scorer the previous season, a player who had previously been at Manchester United but only made one league appearance. The following January he would be leaving Groningen to go back to England where he signed for Fulham. It took Fiorentina just three minutes to equalise Nevland’s goal. Montolivo played a long ball over the top from his own half with both Mutu and Vieri giving chase. With Arnold Kruiswijk unable to keep pace with the Viola pair, Vieri got a touch to the ball which Mutu then struck beautifully with his left and the shot went under the dive of van Loo.
Instead of pushing on and finishing off the Dutch side, Fiorentina were the ones at risk of a knock-out blow. Frey needed to be at his best to deny Bruno Silva and Lovre. Into the last ten minutes and Pazzini replaced Vieri, but the game went to extra-time. Frey was again called into action saving from Levchenko before Montolivo and Mutu both had chances to grab the winner, but van Loo prevented both efforts and now the drama of the penalty shoot-out was needed.
Levchenko stepped up for the first one and blasted it high into the Fiesole. Van Loo then tried some mind games with Pazzini, standing over the striker as he placed the ball, but Pazzini kept his nerve and fired it high down the middle. Van de Laak and Montolivo both scored as Fiorentina were now 2-1 up. Lindgren then hit the crossbar to give Fiorentina a massive advantage. Kuzmanović put his away and it was 3-1 to the Viola.
Silva converted his spot kick but Santana still had the chance to win the tie with his penalty, his effort went high over the bar giving the Dutch a lifeline. Goran Lovre kept them in it with his penalty which left Adrian Mutu with the last penalty with the sides level at 3-3. Van Loo was up to his usual tricks, insisting the ball wasn’t on the spot and generally mouthing off, the keeper went the wrong way, Mutu’s shot hit the post, and ended up in the net as the hero was submerged under a pile of Fiorentina bodies.
They had done it the hard way, but Fiorentina succeeded where all the other Italian sides failed. On the same night Palermo, Empoli, and Sampdoria were all dumped out of the competition and the Viola would be the only Italian club in the group stage. The following Tuesday the draw took place and Fiorentina ended up in Group C with Villareal, AEK Athens, Elfsborg of Sweden, and Czech club Mladá Boleslav. The teams would only play each other once, but with the top three advancing it shouldn’t be an issue to qualify.
Prandelli’s side won two and drew two to finish as runners-up behind Villareal. Fiorentina then beat Rosenborg home and away before coming through another penalty shoot-out against Everton. This set up a quarter-final clash with another Dutch club, PSV Eindhoven. PSV were the Dutch league champions and on their way to winning the title again. They had finished third in their Champions League group, losing both their games with Inter, but in the previous round of the UEFA Cup they had come past Tottenham Hotspur on penalties.
On April 3rd, 2008, PSV arrived at the Franchi for the first leg. They were met by a packed Franchi, with close to 35,000 in the ground and as the visitors headed back to the tunnel after their pre-match warm-up, they were met by a barrage of whistles from all around the stadium. This time Prandelli went with Pazzini and not Vieri, Jørgensen was also back from injury by now, Santana and Kuzmanović were also in the starting eleven as was Massimo Gobbi.
Despite the hostile atmosphere, it was the away side who started the strongest and Frey was forced into action early by a header from Danny Koevermans. Fiorentina came back into the game and Gomes was in action saving from Ujfaluši. After the break Frey needed to save again this time from a shot by Ibrahim Afellay, but it was Fiorentina who broke the deadlock ten minutes after the interval. A long ball from Frey was headed on by Pazzini and as Mutu gave chase Gomes came out but only succeeded in rebounding the ball off the attacker and the ball flew into the net.
Shortly afterwards PSV were forced to change their keeper, the injured Gomes replaced by Bas Roorda. But it was the Dutch who scored next, Fiorentina maintaining their lead for just seven minutes. Afellay played the pass in for Koevermans who beat Gamberini to the ball before firing home a powerful shot past Frey. The PSV reserve keeper then denied Montolivo, and Mutu as Fiorentina were unable to find a winner. They would now need to score in Eindhoven a week later after a 1-1 draw gave PSV the away goal advantage for now.
Prandelli made one change for the return leg replacing Kuzmanović with Donadel while Sef Vergoossen was forced into two changes. Already without the suspended Farfán which brought the Hungarian, Balázs Dzsudzsák into the side, Afellay was then injured in their league game and was replaced by Otman Bakkal, but he did have Gomes back between the posts.
PSV had the first chance with Frey saving from Koevermans before an unmarked Gamberini headed well wide. Seven minutes before the break and Fiorentina were awarded a free kick well outside the area. Liverani tapped it to Mutu who fired home his shot into the top corner. 1-0 up and 2-1 ahead on aggregate, and with an away goal under the Viola’s belt, PSV were now the ones under pressure.
Danko Lazović replaced Bakkal at the break, but it was Fiorentina who scored again. Pazzini’s effort was saved by Gomes, but Mutu was there to meet the rebound with a first-time left foot strike from outside the area which sailed into the empty goal. With Fiorentina now 3-1 up on aggregate, and PSV now needing to score three goals the tie was as good as over.
It was Prandelli’s side who did all the attacking, the wind having gone out of the PSV sails. Montolivo almost scored a spectacular goal when Gomes punched clear a Donadel cross into the box, taking out one of his defenders in the process. With the keeper still on the ground Montolivo controlled the ball and from well outside the area he tried a chip, but Gomes scrambled back to get a hand to it and tip it onto the bar. When the ball came down between his legs Mutu was ready to pounce but the keeper managed to gather it as Mutu could only laugh and give him a playful slap on the leg.
The home side did have a late penalty ten minutes from time to give them some hope. Ujfaluši was judged to have bundled over Lazović as he went for a cross. Timmy Simons stepped up but his effort down the middle was pushed away by Frey and it really was all over for the Dutch champions. Fiorentina were into the semi-final of the UEFA Cup.
After two scoreless draws with an extremely defensive Glasgow Rangers, in their third penalty shoot-out of the competition, this time it wasn’t to be. Liverani and Vieri both missed their spot kicks and Rangers went on to lose the final in Manchester to Zenit Saint Petersburg. Who knows what may have happened if we had managed to score against the Scottish club, but it’s certainly the closest we came to winning e European trophy in our recent history.
Now, as we make our long-awaited return to European competition, another Dutch side stands in our way. Let’s hope our clash with Twente ends more like those with both PSV and Groningen and not like the tie with Ajax.