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Fiorentina 2-0 Rapid Wien: Player grades and 3 things we learned

Uomini forti, destini forti.

ACF Fiorentina v Rapid Wien: UEFA Conference League - Play-off Round Second Leg Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Player grades

Pietro Terracciano—6: Much better this time around. Made a couple saves but didn’t face anything too dire and cleaned up his distribution. Perhaps a bit lucky that Marco Grüll and Fally Malulu couldn’t get their chances on target but won’t complain about a clean sheet.

Dodô—6: Had a couple nervy moments against the excellent Grüll but mostly held up well defensively. Didn’t affect the game much going forward aside from a couple of decent interchanges with Nico.

Nikola Milenković—7: Too big and too strong again. Rapid Wien couldn’t get anything past him as he anchored Fiorentina’s defense. Imperious in the air and in the tackle. Also hit a couple of long range diagonals; if that’s really part of his arsenal now, he may be Serie A’s most complete and versatile central defender.

Luca Ranieri—6.5: Whiffed a tackle on Malulu that let the striker in for a shot he missed and whiffed on a couple of clearances leading up to Grüll’s chance, but was solid otherwise. Made a couple of incredible tackles, including one on the endline to win a goal kick and boot Nicolas Kühn about 10 feet into the air. Fiorentina’s reigning champion of silliness.

Cristiano Biraghi—6: Played in a few decent balls but wasn’t the creative force he usually is. Had a couple of bad defensive moments but also had a couple of good ones.

Arthur Melo—7: Ran the show all day, spreading the ball around and keeping the forwards involved. Won fouls to relieve pressure when Rapid had Fiorentina pinned back. Not the best defending in space but is clearly a level above the other midfielders on the roster. Did get booked for a petulant kick at an opponent, which isn’t a great indicator of maturity.

Rolando Mandragora—5.5: Won the penalty that won the tie and rocketed a shot off the bar, but was more of an off-ball runner when the Viola needed someone in the middle to calm things down, especially early on.

Nicolás González—8.5: Sublime as ever. Wants responsibility and more than able to take it. Has the sort of gravity that pulls the ball towards him in the right places, and that’s a quality that only the very, very top players have. He’s that guy.

Giacomo Bonaventura—5: Had some neat turns and touches but ran himself into dead ends way too often rather than picking his head up and slowing down the pace. He’s started every game this season, so maybe he just needs a break.

Christian Kouamé—7: Ran his heart out, as per usual, and created several decent chances, including Nico’s first goal. His penchant for smashing shots directly into nearby defenders can be frustrating, but Chris wants to do the dirty work and is happy setting up his teammates, so there’s no reason to dislike him.

M’Bala Nzola—4: I could say that his physicality and linkup play helped Fiorentina pin Rapid back at times, but that would be burying the lede. The big man missed chances to put this one to bed that he really should have taken. It’s probably just bad luck but a striker simply has to finish those, even they’re contributing in other ways.

Lucas Beltrán—6.5: Nippy and involved. Drops deep to link up with the midfielders and plays on the turn rather than bodying up a defender on the last line. Showed good movement in behind and was unlucky not to score or assist one. Looks to already have a nice little mind meld with Nico.

Alfred Duncan—6: Added zip and verticality to the midfield. Won the ball and got it forward quickly, like he always does. Smashed a shot straight into Nicklas Hedl so hard that the goalkeeper needed medical attention to his ribs; a foot either way it was the winner. Might be the best depth midfielder this team’s had in years.

Riccardo Sottil—5.5: Caused the defense some problems with his pace, but showed more promise than result. Seems more focused all of a sudden, though, and that’s a very good thing.

Aleksandr Kokorin—n/a: I can imagine no greater insult to Luka Jović.

Fabiano Parisi—n/a: Got his first little nibble of Europe.

Three things we learned

1. Italiano can adjust, albeit slowly. Rapid spent the first 15 minutes motoring forward like Giulio Migliaccio’s tank. Everything was done at a sprint and Fiorentina were clearly unprepared for the assault. Zoran Barisic’s plan must have been to throw everything at the hosts, score, and then sit back and protect a 2-goal lead. It nearly worked, too, as the Viola were discombobulated by the incredible pressure the Austrians applied.

It wasn’t a surprise, of course, because it’s exactly what Rapid did in the first leg. Italiano must have known what was coming but his team still looked astonished. After a quarter hour, though, he figured out the counter, which was to sit his fullbacks deeper and wider, rather than letting them move infield to flood the center; while that can work, the result was that Rapid could stack the middle and ignore the wide areas. Pushing Biraghi and Dodô wider gave the centerbacks an easy outlet instead of forcing them to hoof it upfield, forced Rapid’s wingers higher and wider, and opened space in the middle for Arthur to operate.

2. Patience is a virtue. Outside of the amphetamine-heavy teams of the 1970s and 1980s, it’s just not possible to apply that kind of pressure for 90 minutes. Rapid took a gamble by opening the way it did and nearly made it count, so it was the right strategy. The problem was that Fiorentina got sucked into playing the same way, which isn’t how Italiano wants them to work. He wants them to control the play, being proactive rather than reactive. That’s the opposite of how the opening minutes went.

It was the right decision, too, as Rapid Wien dashed itself to pieces in the initial quarter hour and simply didn’t have the juice after that. Cousin Vinnie knew that if he could weather the storm, his team had the quality to get the necessary result. That’s part of why Fiorentina play such a high tempo too: it’s not necessarily to score every time, but to tire out opponents over the course of 90 minutes and take advantage of late lapses. It doesn’t always work, obviously, but it’s not a bad approach in and of itself.

3. There’s still some magic in this squad. Most teams, after a run to a European final, have a lot of trouble repeating that feat. Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion from the previous season turns up in the weirdest places, leading to bad results. More than anything, the good luck required to win that many knockout games just runs out.

Even with all the new signings, though, this group still has a little magic left. Most of it’s concentrated in the person of Nico González, but it’s spread around a bit. These guys know that a 1-goal deficit is never insurmountable as long as they keep working. As cheesy as it sounds, that kind of self-belief is how a team makes its own luck.