No wins since the end of September. A problem with scoring goals from open play. A number of key players out through suspension. A home match versus local rivals. This was the situation that faced under-pressure Fiorentina boss Stefano Pioli before last Sunday’s match with Empoli, and to make matters worse, the Viola were already 1-0 down after just 23 minutes.
The Coach had gone from his usual 4-3-3 to a slightly altered 3-4-1-2 formation, fielding centre-backs Vitor Hugo, German Pezzella and Federico Ceccherini in the backline with Federico Chiesa and Cristiano Biraghi deployed as wing-backs. Christian Norgaard was brought in for the suspended Jordan Veretout – partnering with Gerson in the midfield – as Marco Benassi supported Kevin Mirallas and Giovanni Simeone up front.
Yet it seemed like the same old performance from the home side, their vocal supporters seeing an ineffective display from a squad that had only just salvaged a 3-3 draw with Sassuolo after two last-gasp strikes the week before.
Former Everton winger Mirallas had entered as a substitute to fire in one of those late strikes, earning a well-deserved place in the starting lineup versus Empoli. It was the Belgian who latched onto a well-placed Simeone through ball to score a superb equaliser in the 40th minute, but Fiorentina knew that another draw was simply not enough on this occasion.
Who knows what Pioli said to his players at half-time, but a rejuvenated and determined team then emerged from the tunnel after the break, the system suddenly seeming to click into place when it had previously looked so dysfunctional.
Free-flowing and attacking football were combined with the defensive solidity that had been the one plus-point from the poor displays during the previous few weeks as the Viola attacked their Tuscan neighbours with ferocity. Such an improvement was combined with tangible effects just before the hour mark as Simeone marked a return to goalscoring form with a second strike in as many matches following a drought that had stretched back to mid-September.
His over-exuberance after the goal went in saw him make a “shushing” gesture to the home crowd after they had been vocal in their criticism of his performances, a regrettable incident that he duly apologised for after the match.
“The celebration? I was not angry with the fans, but with myself,” Simeone assured to reporters in the mixed-zone after the match. “It had been a long time since I had scored and I was on-edge. I apologise to the fans because it was not their fault and when they are with us we see the difference. I wanted to celebrate as I always do, only as a way of releasing my frustrations.”
Such an occurrence must not detract from the superb performance and a sorely-needed victory however, as substitute Bryan Dabo made it 3-1 with 12 minutes remaining. After many had been calling for the midfielder to be brought into the side over the past few weeks, it was hoped the midfielder would have started in place of Norgaard after a suspension for Veretout had excluded him from the action.
Yet while Pioli went for the former Denmark U21 player instead, Dabo proved his effectiveness over Norgaard with a sublime display and a goal in the final period of the match. With upcoming fixtures away at AC Milan and at home to Parma before the end of the year, it will be interesting to see what the Coach does next and whether he will keep Dabo in the holding midfield role, allowing Veretout to return to the side in a more advanced position.
“I wasn’t expecting an easy encounter,” Pioli admitted to reporters after the match. “The greatest risk was conceding first, and it happened, but then my lads reacted wonderfully. Today will serve to teach them a lot.We kept things simple. After all, that’s what we needed at a time like this. My formation was simple too, with three defenders facing up to their two strikers, parity of numbers in the midfield, and easy manoeuvres.
“This was just the game we needed, although we might have resolved it earlier. Now I won’t look at the standings until the winter break. We’ll have three games in close succession to worry about. Milan, Parma and Genoa are tough opponents, but not out of our reach.”
It is to be hoped that the Viola can use the three points earned – along with a vastly improved performance – to serve as a springboard for the rest of their campaign. Pioli may not be looking at the table but the Tuscans are now just four points away from the remaining Champions League spot, currently occupied by Saturday’s opponents Milan.
A victory at San Siro would suddenly propel the side into the conversation for Europe, an incentive indeed for a Fiorentina side that seems to have recovered well from their slump.