The third match in group play against Čukarički shouldn’t be a must-win, but that’s where Fiorentina is. An awful but predictable loss against Empoli on Monday and means the Viola desperately need some momentum going into this one between the bottom two sides in Group F of the Conference League. The Tuscans are W4 D3 L3 against Serbian sides (although they haven’t faced one since losing to Vojvodina in the 1972 Mitropa Cup), while the Brđani have never played Italian opposition.
The referee for this one is 34-year-old Chrysovalantis Theouli of Cyprus. In 7 appearances this season, he’s handed out 26 yellow cards and 3 penalties. He’s pretty slow to go to the book but not afraid to point to the spot per his previous numbers, which could play to the visitors’ favor as they look to impose themselves physically on proceedings. He’s never reffed a game for a senior club side from either Italy or Serbia.
The match will be played on Thursday, 26 October 2023, at 7:00 PM GMT/3:00 PM EST, at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in beautiful Firenze. The forecast calls for some rain right on and off all day, but it’s likely to be coming down around kickoff, although at least the temperature will be fairly warm for the 20,000ish fans expected, including just a couple dozen or so from Serbia.
Despite the loss to Empoli, Fiorentina’s still having an objectively good season, sitting at 5th place in the league with 17 points from 9 games; despite the carping from certain sectors of the fan base, that’s quite good. In Europe, though, it’s been a different story: first, the Viola twice coughed up a lead at Genk, then needed to come back from 2 down for a point against Ferencváros. With the club still looking for its first win in Europe this season, it feels like there’s more pressure here than you might otherwise expect.
Manager Vincenzo Italiano won’t have Yerry Mina (duh), Cristiano Biraghi, Dodô, or Giacomo Bonaventura. He may look to rotate the side a bit, so expect to see Luca Ranieri, Jonathan Ikoné, Christian Kouamé, and Rolando Mandragora, with the slight possibility of an Edoardo Pierozzi sighting at some point. It’ll be the usual 4-2-3-1, of course, with the real questions coming on the wings and in midfield.
You know the drill by now. Čukarički will sit very deep and defend with 2 banks of 4 (and maybe more than that), forcing Fiorentina to break down a deep block. They’ve shown cracks defending their own box, particularly against teams that can shift the ball quickly from side to side, and look vulnerable to good dribblers. They will, however, remorselessly kick anything they find in midfield. In short, this feels like a game tailor-made for guys like Ikoné, González, Arthur, and Lopez.
It hasn’t been the best start to the season for Čukarički, as they’ve straggled to 16 points from 10 matches, good for just 6th in the SuperLiga after losing 1-0 at Novi Pazar over the weekend; that result means they’ve won just twice in their past 13 outings. That’s not where the Brđani (Highlanders) expect to be after 3 straight 3rd place finishes. They’ve also yet to take a point in Europe, losing 3-1 at Ferencváros and 0-2 to Genk, so there could be some desperation creeping in, as a win here is really the only way to advance to the next round.
Manager Igor Matić should have his full squad available. He likes a 4-2-3-1, which should lead to a lot of fairly simple matchups across the pitch, but seems to be looking for consistency at striker (sound familiar?), where Sunday Adetunji and Mohamed Badamosi have combined for just 2 goals, and at goalkeeper, where 3 players have at least 4 starts. The danger man is attacking midfielder Igor Miladinović (not the chess grandmaster of the same name), whose 4 goals lead the side. Marko Docić (2 goals, 2 assists) is the key man in midfield and a good set piece taker as well.
Matić isn’t the slightest bit fussed about possession, having averaged under 35% of the ball in Europe this season. This is a team based largely around transitions and set pieces. For the former, they want to get the ball down the wings and cross, with Miladinović timing his runs into the box quite well to find space. The strikers and wingers are pretty quick, too, but no more so than their Serie A equivalents. Docić’s delivery is the most important factor from dead balls, although Čukarički do have a number of tall players to make his job easier.
How to watch
TV: Yeah, no. But feel free to check the international television listings.
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Ted’s Memorial Blind Guess Department
Fiorentina is a massive favorite with the bookmakers, which isn’t too surprising, given the relative profiles of these sides. Let’s be honest: the Viola ought to roll to victory pretty easily here, but we all know that’s not how this works. With a few injuries and some heavy legs from the Empoli game, this could be trickier, especially if Čukarički picks at the usual weaknesses. And do you really expect them not to?
Still, I like the Viola to pull out the win and finally get the European campaign started. I’ll make it a 3-1 win for the good guys, with Antonín Barák continuing to terrorize Conference League opponents with a goal, joined by Lucas Beltrán (finally) and Nikola Milenković on the scoresheet, with Miladinović pulling one back in a game that’s a little more stop-start than anyone would like and that feels closer than it actually is.