Coming off a run of 13 wins from 15 in all competitions, Braga boss Artur Jose felt confident enough to rotate his side, making 6 changes from the team that beat Marítimo on Sunday. Vincenzo Italiano also made some changes, most notably with Lorenzo Venuti and Riccardo Saponara coming in.
The real point of interest, though, was the Estádio Municipal. I’m not sure what sort of reputation Braga supporters have in Portugal, and I still have no idea because there were barely any there; the 30,000 person arena seemed to be barely a third full, and those few who did venture in were really quiet.
The traveling support was a bit noisier at the start but not much, although that was because Viola fans—some of whom were chilling in a sidewalk cafe with team owner Rocco Commisso before the game—clashed with Portuguese authorities outside the stadium, leading to 4 people hospitalized with injuries from rubber bullets. It took nearly half an hour for the fans to get into the arena, but they were orders of magnitude louder than their counterparts when they arrived. It felt more like a home match than an away one.
Luka Jović hammered a scissor kick straight at Matheus in the 3rd minute, which seemed a good clue as to how this might go. Fiorentina pressed well and kept Braga pinned back, playing through the middle more than we’re used to before spreading it wide late and crossing. Cristiano Biraghi was particularly good, teasing in several excellent crosses that Jović and Nicolás González couldn’t convert.
The hosts had a 5-minute spell of pressure, forcing a save from Pietro Terracciano and seeing Abel Ruiz somehow miss a wide open shot from 8 yards out after Nikola Milenković missed a clearance, but the good guys steadied the ship and retook momentum. A couple of injuries from Matheus and Uros Račić led to a lot of stoppage time, and it was then that Jović finally headed home a pinpoint perfect Biraghi cross to hand the visitors a well-deserved lead.
CHE GOL DI LUKA JOVIĆ!!! pic.twitter.com/tUQpdwBdT5— Football Report (@FootballReprt) February 16, 2023
Braga sort of tried to come out hard, specifically pushing rightback Víctor Gómez forward to pin Riccardo Saponara back, but that was quickly undone by a senseless stamp by Vitor Tormena on Jović; a VAR check determined that the Brazilian defender got a red card, and the lack of argument from him and his teammates confirmed that it was the right choice.
It took the Viola all of 5 minutes to take advantage: Sofyan Amrabat played Saponara through the right hand channel, and the Cheese dinked a square ball over an onrushing Matheus. Jović arrived at the back post and slipped it past Paulo Oliveira from a very tight angle to put this one to bed and make himself the Conference League’s top scorer so far with 6 goals.
Fiorentina managed the game really well after that, keeping possession in deep areas in a manner that occasionally looked aimless but was clearly intended to lull the Arcebispos to sleep before picking the right moment to spring forward. González and Saponara were involved, but it was substitute Arthur Cabral who made sure his fellow striker Jović wouldn’t get all the headlines with an absolutely absurd effort: after receiving a throw-in from Biraghi, he juggled the ball past 4 defenders before swiveling and volleying a bullet past Matheus, who was rooted to the spot. It’s the kind of goal that commentators always attribute to Brazilian verve.
MA CHE BEL GOL DI ARTHUR CABRAL!!!pic.twitter.com/pPqw4oulUz— Football Report (@FootballReprt) February 16, 2023
The Viola weren’t happy with 3, though. They kept probing away while ensuring they were secure at the back, and Jonathan Ikoné eventually nicked the ball off Sikou Niakhaté at the back and drove into the penalty area, drawing both remaining defenders and then unselfishly laying it off for Cabral to poke home with his left, completing a brace.
Ikoné nearly added a 5th moments later, darting into the area unmarked as Braga tried to prepare for a set piece, but Matheus made the 1-v-1 save. When the final whistle blew, it was pretty clear who’d been better, and the Fiorentina fans were clearly in full party mode.
Goals: Jović 45’+1 (ass. Biraghi), Jović’ 60’ (ass. Saponara), Cabral 79’ (ass. Biraghi), Cabral 90’ (ass. Ikoné)
Cards: Tormena red card 55’; Venuti 50’, Kouamé 86’, Ikoné 89’
Let’s start with the basics. That was really fun. Fiorentina was fun. That’s a rare occurrence, and we all deserve to enjoy it. Let’s just revel in it for a little bit.
Okay, done reveling. The downside is that the Viola have to return to Serie A on Sunday with a clash against Empoli, a side ranked two spots above them; that should add a little extra flavor to the always-fiery Derby Dell’Arno.
The return leg of this tie is next Thursday in Florence; with a 4-0 lead, expect to see some heavy rotation and some of the end-of-bench guys. The only bummer is that Lorenzo Venuti will be suspended for yellow card accumulation.