Following every weekend, when discussing Serie A, there's a temptation to focus on Juventus. As the long-time reigning champions, it's clear why the Turin side garners a huge amount of attention. But the best stories are not always found at the top of the table.
Even this week, when Genoa roared into a three-goal lead against the title-holders, who in turn suffered from a raft of serious injuries and a stunning loss, Italy’s most interesting match was not to be found at the top of the table. It wasn’t even in Turin, which rules out the currently-effervescent Torino. Indeed, it was something of a mid-table battle. It didn’t even take place on the weekend.
Instead, we should look towards a cold Monday night in Milan. At the San Siro, the much-maligned Internazionale faced off against forgotten Fiorentina. The trials and tribulations of Inter have been discussed at length, but the team from Florence have perhaps flown under the radar this season. On Monday night, a six-goal thriller turned attentions back towards the struggling Florentines.
— F.C. Internazionale (@Inter_en) November 29, 2016
This time last year, Fiorentina were starting to entertain genuine title ambitions. In and around the first place position after a quarter of the season, while other clubs struggled, there was a belief — a distant hope, really — that La Viola might be able to take their first title in half a century.
Last year, Fiorentina were defying expectations. The newly-installed Paulo Sousa was treated at first with scepticism and then excitement, building on his success at Basel to solidify a side known more for their passing style and pretty play than their success. After years of Vincenzo Montella’s Spanish-influenced possession tactics, Serie A’s most aesthetically-pleasing team suddenly had a more pragmatic edge.
They also had a striker who was on fire. After trundling around the leagues of Europe without ever really striking it hot, Nikola Kalinic was scoring a goal a game. Milan Badelj, Borja Valero and Matias Vecino struck up a fluid, formidable midfield, and Sousa’s men began to creep up the table. In a season where everyone expected the perennial fourth place contenders to falter, Fiorentina hit their stride.
It didn’t last. A touch predictably, Kalinic’s hot streak ended. The side struggled for goals. There were too many draws, too many points thrown away. The season had started with big victories over Inter and Milan, but ended with insufferable draws against relegation fodder. Sousa’s hastily built popularity begin to fade away too, the fans starting to think that the Portuguese manager had run out of ideas.
But the season ended. Fiorentina finished well enough to get into the Europa League, again allowing themselves the opportunity to get beaten next springtime. Transfers happened. In came a raft of kids and cost-effective options. Out went big earners such as Mario Gomez. There was something of a sea-change, a clear indication from the higher-ups that the time of spending big (or at least, spending quite big) was drawing to a close in Florence.
This further strained the relationship between the board, the manager and the fans. The board seemed unconvinced that spending money was worthwhile, especially as other Italian sides spent huge amounts. The manager seemed convinced that he was not receiving a suitable backing and began to make noise about leaving.
The fans were yet to be convinced by the manager or the board and focused their ire on all of the underperforming aspects of the club. Everyone, it seemed, was unhappy.
Thus far, the season has been something of a drag. Decent results have sprung up here and there. Fiorentina have found themselves victims of circumstance, having had a match against Genoa called off due to the weather. This has meant that they currently sit slap bang in the middle of the table, albeit with a game in hand. Currently, the club cannot seem to kick off the funk.
And Paulo Sousa seems a dead man walking. Last season, after pre-season victories against Chelsea and Barcelona, as well as their strong start, the manager seemed full of energy. These days, he is going through the motions. As much as anybody, Sousa knows his days at the club are numbered.
— footballitalia (@footballitalia) November 27, 2016
After a series of cagey press conferences, the press has started the long, drawn out process of questioning the team’s confidence in their manager. Sousa will leave, it seems. It is not a matter of if, but rather a question of when.
And that brings us to Monday night. Facing Inter at San Siro, Fiorentina were down 3-0 inside the first twenty minutes. It was a shambles, the kind of performance that even neutral fans watch through their fingers, embarrassed to be complicit in such awfulness. To say Fiorentina were terrible in the opening quarter of the game would be a disservice to every terrible thing that has ever existed. They were worse.
Already, the column inches were being written. Dead in the water. Club in crisis. Sousa sent packing. But then, as is the way with football, the tables turned slightly. Fiorentina got a goal back before half time. Things started to look up. When a side plays Felipe Melo in midfield these days (as Inter did) they will always give you a chance.
More and more, the one bright spark of Fiorentina’s season came to the forefront. Federico Bernardeschi, a local lad and the best thing to come out of Tuscany since cantuccini, began to get more and more into the game. Ostensibly a number ten, he is one of Italy’s greatest young talents.
Federico Bernardeschi has now scored 4 goals in his last 3 games for Fiorentina across all competitions.Thriving further forward. pic.twitter.com/CxahmmuHb9
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 24, 2016
Of course, Sousa has insisted on limiting the youngster’s development by playing him at full back, but on Monday, "Berna" began to combine with Josip Ilicic. It looked like Fiorentina might actually be able to at least worry their opposition.
But then things turned. Gonzalo Rodriguez got a soft red card and La Viola were down to ten men. But still they pressed and things turned once again. Ilicic scored a long distance goal and suddenly it was 3-2. Inter, victims of so much recent uncertainty, were beginning to wobble.
Fiorentina pushed and pushed for an equalizer, but then things turned for a final time. Just as Fiorentina were protesting a potential foul in a good spot, Inter ran down the other end and scored. And that was it.
The final score was 4-2 to Inter. The match, a genuine thriller, was settled in favor of the Milan side. As Inter began to reassert themselves under Stefano Pioli, Fiorentina shuffled ever closer to what now seems an inevitable parting of ways. This display was abject, encouraging and deflating in that order. Sousa, it seems, will have a few more chances to resurrect his authority but the writing seems on the door.
This Monday, Fiorentina had a chance to get their season back on track. They threw it away. Then they almost clawed it back. Then they threw it away again. Unless something dramatic happens in Florence, the purple-shirted side seem to be sleepwalking to the end of the season.
Serie A’s most interesting fixture this weekend will be followed up with an important epilogue. How in the world are Fiorentina going to steady their slowly sinking ship? Will they throw the captain overboard?