A red-hot Fiorentina return from central Turkey to take on a team with a number of familiar faces. That’s right, it’s time to welcome Lecce back to Tuscany. In 37 previous meetings, the Viola hold a W14 D12 L11 edge, winning, drawing, and losing once in all their meetings over the past decade. The reverse fixture ended in a deeply frustrating 1-1 featuring disallowed goals, VAR, red card controversies, and a general mess.
The referee for this one is 37-year-old Rosario Abisso of Palermo. In 8 Serie A matches this year, he’s handed out 37 yellow cards, 3 red cards, and 5 PKs; yes, that’s a sending off or a penalty every game, on average. He’s perpetually under fire, it seems, for odd decisions. In 12 games under his direction, Fiorentina are W7 D3 L2. Last we saw him was the 1-0 win over Venezia last year.
The match will be played on Sunday, 19 March 2023, at 2:00 PM GMT/9:00 AM EST, at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in beautiful Firenze. The forecast calls for a pretty gross day, rainy and grey, although it at least shouldn’t be too cold: temperatures should be getting close to 16°C/60°F. Expect a very full house as the tifosi come out to support Serie A’s longest active winning streak.
Hey, remember when Fiorentina went 5 straight without a win in January and February and there was genuine discussion about whether or not this team was capable of staving off relegation? Feels like a different decade now, doesn’t it? The Viola haven’t lost in more than a month, stacking 6 straight wins across all competitions and stoking optimism among the fans that the club could end its silverware drought with either the Coppa Italia or the Conference League. The Franchi’s a fun place to be these days.
Manager Vincenzo Italiano won’t have LB Aleksa Terzić and CM Alessandro Bianco may be out as well. He’ll likely shuffle his XI significantly after the hard-fought won against Sivasspor on Thursday, so expect Igor, Cristiano Biraghi, Antonín Barák, Riccardo Saponara, and Luka Jović to return. The real question is whether Gaetano Castrovilli, working his way back into form, is ready for another start, which would likely require a move to a 4-3-3 from the the usual 4-2-3-1.
The Giallorossi are more adventurous than your average newly-promoted side and like to press high. To their credit, it’s working; they’ve conceded 31 goals—as many as Fiorentina—and are good at disrupting opponents and keeping them away from their own goal. The problem is that they leave gaps in the defense which a cagey opponent can exploit. If the Viola midfield can find Nicolás González and company in space, they’ll give themselves a really good chance to score goals. Be warned, though, that Lecce excel at at niggly little fouls to break up attacks. In short, this should be a good test for the good guys.
Despite winning Serie B last year, Lecce were tipped to struggle in the top flight this year after a couple years away. However, those in the know (read: Fiorentina fans) expected the Giallorossi to compete more than anyone expected, as they’d snapped up Pantaleo Corvino and Sandro Mencucci to work their magic behind the scenes, and the results have been pretty good. The Apulians sit in 15th, 8 points clear of the drop zone, and have to feel good about the season as a whole, although 3 straight losses (albeit competitive ones to top half teams) mean that there may be a bit of anxiety creeping in.
Manager Marco Baroni (himself a native Florentine) won’t have CB Marin Pogrančić or CB Kastriot Dermaku. He’ll play his usual 4-3-3, although the string of defeats could see him make some changes. Besides Corvino and Mencucci, keep an eye on Viola loanee Youssef Maleh in midfield. The danger comes from RW Gabriele Strefezza (7 goals), a dribbly little trickster who gave Biraghi fits in the reverse fixture. Beanpole striker Assan Ceesay (4 goals) is deceptively quick and skillful in space, while hulking CB Federico Baschirotto (3 goals) is a terrifying target at set pieces.
Lecce average the least possession in the league. Their midfield is generally quite functional and leaves the attacking up to the tridente, so expect a lot of long balls for Ceesay to knock down, or to chase into the channels. They’ll try to isolate Strefezza against Biraghi and let the oriundo cook 1-v-1; he’s got a good shot cutting in and plenty of pace and guile. Failing that, they’ll try to win fouls and look for former bodybuilder Baschirotto to bulldoze his way at goal.
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Ted’s Memorial Blind Guess Department
The oddsmakers have Fiorentina as big favorites for all the obvious reasons. The Viola are higher in the table, in an outrageous vein of form, and playing at home. Lecce are lower in the table, struggling for wins, and on the road. The only silver lining for the Salentini is that they’ve gathered 15 of their 27 points this year away from the Stadio Ettore Giardianiero, highlighting exactly how much they enjoy playing the spoiler.
Even so, I’m going to take Fiorentina for a tense 2-0 win, with Cabral and Barák to score. I expect the visitors to come out and press well, disrupting the hosts early, but to overextend themselves and leave space for Fiorentina to pick them off in space. That sounds like exactly what Nico and company want, so despite Lecce clogging up the middle very well, I don’t think they have quite enough to play the way they want to. And I really, really want my prediction to be right here.