Inter return to Serie A action on Sunday evening as they take on Fiorentina at the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
The match could have a key bearing on the Nerazzurri’s hopes of securing Champions League football for the second season running, so with that in mind we thought it’d be a good idea to find out a little more about this weekend’s opponents.
What’s the secret behind Fiorentina’s unbeaten start to 2019? Will Stefano Pioli rest some players ahead of next week’s Coppa Italia semi-finals? And how are former Inter players Cristiano Biraghi and Marco Benassi faring in Florence these days?
We asked those questions and many more besides to Viola Nation’s Tito Kohout, and his responses were delightfully insightful.
(They also asked us some questions of their own, and you can read our responses here.)
SoM: Fiorentina remain unbeaten in 2019 with four wins and three draws in all competitions. What’s been the secret behind your good run of form? (Don’t worry, I won’t tell Spalletti - not that he ever listens to me anyway...)
TK: The secret is the pace of Luis Muriel and pure, uncut luck. Of course, with Muriel expected to start this one from the bench, things look a bit less rosy from the Viola perspective. The luck part of it is substantial, though. Late goals while down a man in two matches aren’t really the sort of thing you can teach.
Strategically, I think it’s been more a matter of using width and having another target to aim for behind the opposing defense. As the Udinese and Napoli ably demonstrated, you can still frustrate this team by sitting deep and staying compact, or if you have enough pace at the back to run with Chiesa and Muriel. And again, without the Colombian, it’s hard to see Fiorentina creating a whole lot as the Inter defense focuses all its resources on stopping Fede.
SoM: Fiorentina will play Atalanta on Wednesday in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals. One would assume that that’s a very big deal for you as a club, so with that in mind what kind of team do you think Stefano Pioli will pick against Inter? Might he be tempted to rest a couple of players ahead of that game?
TK: As previously mentioned, Luis Muriel is going to start from the bench, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Chiesa gets a bit of extra rest here as well. That means we could see someone like Marko Pjaca get some minutes, which would be rather surprising but not especially heartening for the Viola fans. I think that end-of-bench midfielders Bryan Dabo and Christian Nørgaard could see the pitch as well, as could highly-rated young defender David Hancko.
Fiorentina don’t really have the depth to rotate too much, especially with Germán Pezzella and Kevin Mirallas injured, so it’ll probably be most of the regulars.I think that Pioli and company are taking the Coppa pretty seriously, as it looks an easier path to the Europa League than finishing 7th right now. It’d also be nice to win some major silverware for the first time since Outkast released “Ms. Jackson,” which should tell you how long it’s been.
SoM: In a poll on your website this week, Viola Nation readers voted German Pezzella as Fiorentina’s second most important player after Federico Chiesa - however the Argentine will miss Sunday’s match due to a knee injury. Who is expected to fill in for Pezzella and how big a miss will he be at centre-back?
TK: Chiesa is the most dangerous part of this team, but I think you could make a pretty good argument that Pezzella is its beating heart. The way that he’s picked up the captaincy, especially after the death of Davide Astori, has been inspirational, and he seems like a well-liked and -respected figured in the dressing room. Besides quietly being one of the best central defenders in Serie A (just ask Arkadiusz Milik and the rest of Napoli), he’s also the most experienced defender in the side and organizes the back line.
Nikola Milenković is an athletic marvel and should grow into a world-class player soon, but he’s prone to lapses in concentration at this point and lacks the vocal presence of Pezzella. The Serbian has generally slid over to partner Vitor Hugo in the middle, with either Federico Ceccherini or Vincent Laurini slotting in at fullback. With all respect to those players, who’ve performed well, they’re a significant downgrade from the Argentina international. If Mauro Icardi were playing, I’d expect him to score 8. Since it sounds like he won’t, they should hold him to just 1 or 2. Seriously, I hate playing against that guy.
SoM: Fiorentina have two ex-Inter players in their ranks and both should be involved on Sunday: Cristiano Biraghi and Marco Benassi. How would you rate their seasons so far and would you currently view both as having been good signing?
TK: Biraghi has been brilliant. My very unbiased opinion is that he’s been the best left-back in Italy across the entire season. His energy, intelligence, creativity, and crossing ability makes him Fiorentina’s second-most influential player in the attacking third. He’s not quite as strong defensively, but he’s certainly not a weak link. He’s been way better than anyone could have hoped, brings an excellent attitude, and looks like a future captain. We all love him.
Benassi is trickier to evaluate. He leads the Viola scoring charts with 8 strikes this year, which is pretty nuts for a midfielder, but he’s underwhelming pretty much whenever he’s not scoring. He’s often a passenger in possession and doesn’t add a whole lot defensively. He’s also got a knack for losing the ball under dubious circumstances and hasn’t shown off the passing range and vision that made him such a hot property when he was younger. Part of that is his role: he’s played a weird central midfield/wingback hybrid, frequently shuffling wide before making runs at goal, but I think most fans are just as confused as I am on how to rate his performance this year.
SoM: Another man with a very recent past at Inter is Stefano Pioli himself. It didn’t end particularly well for him with the Nerazzurri, but he seems to have rebuilt his reputation somewhat during the last 18 months in Florence. How would you assess his tenure so far: a success, a failure or something in between?
TK: Pioli’s a bit tough to assess as well. First, he handled Astori’s passing with a grace and dignity that floored everyone, and he seems like a top-drawer human being. He’s also done a good job installing a very different overall tactical system; for half a decade under Vincenzo Montella and Paulo Sousa, the Viola were all about keeping the ball. Pioli has now installed a counter-pressing system with a strong defensive base which should serve the personnel well.
That said, the feeling amongst the fans seems to be that Pioli has taken this team just about as far as he can, as he hasn’t yet demonstrated any capacity to dominate smaller teams or defeat an opponent who sits deep. He’s done a heck of a job with a tough situation, but he may be hitting the end of the leash. The fact that he hasn’t yet extended his contract, which runs out at season’s end, demonstrates that upper management remain a bit unconvinced.
SoM: One man who has never coached or played for Inter but could do so in the future - at least if the Italian media is to be believed (and why wouldn’t you believe them? They never report inaccurate information) - is Federico Chiesa. What makes him such a special player for Fiorentina supporters and how likely do you think it is he’ll leave this summer?
TK: As a player, Chiesa’s got every tool you could possibly want in the kit: pace, dribbling, passing, shooting, work rate, and desire. The fact that he’s risen through the Viola academy without ever even leaving on loan makes him a bit special. The fact that he broke into the first team and established his credentials as a star right as guys like Borja Valero and Federico Bernardeschi left made the fans form a very strong attachment to him very quickly. His displays over the past year and a half, as the only player in the side who can win a game by himself at any given moment, makes him awfully easy to love.
On his departure, I’m not completely convinced he’s leaving in the summer. Chiesa is a very family-first guy and his folks live in Florence; heck, his 14-year-old brother Lorenzo is a ball-boy and a youth team player. Plus, his dad Enrico is a Viola legend and knows a thing or two about putting together a good career. I can’t imagine that he’s going to push his son into a move where he won’t be an automatic starter, which narrows the potential suitors. Fede himself has been very quiet about his future, but he clearly loves the badge and I think he’s got at least one more season in Florence.
SoM: As far as Inter themselves are concerned, are there any players you’re particularly worried about facing on Sunday? What/where will the key battle be?
TK: Guh. All of them? Not having to worry about Icardi is a huge weight off. But guys like Ivan Perišić, Matteo Politano, Radja Nainggolan, and Keita Baldé are all more than capable of getting goals, and it’s not like Lautaro is a slouch. Plus, facing former players is always asking for a rete del ex, even if those players are Borja Valero and Matías Vecino, who aren’t usually scorers.
I think the key spot will be Fiorentina’s left and Inter’s right. Biraghi will spend a lot of time trying to get up the pitch to provide width, which could leave space in behind. Conversely, I feel like whoever Spalletti chooses at left-back will probably spend a lot of time going forward as well, so it could get pretty wild down that flank. I think the other area of interest is right in front of Fiorentina’s defense. If Jordan Veretout and Edimilson Fernandes (or whoever else winds up in that area) can prevent the likes of Nainggolan from finding space to shoot or play Martinez through, I think the hosts will have a decent chance for a positive result.
SoM: Prediction time: What’s the final score, who gets the goals, and what’s the overall pattern of the match?
TK: I think we’re looking at a 2-2 draw. I think Fiorentina will come out hard and pin Inter back for the first 10ish minutes, but that the visitors will grow into the match and figure out how to break the Viola pressure in midfield, while the hosts will desperately ping the ball towards Chiesa and pray. I think a second half cameo from Muriel will spark the attack and stress Inter a lot.
Therefore, I’ll go ahead and say that an early goal from Benassi will give the good guys (that’s Fiorentina for those of you keeping track at home) an early lead, but that a Nainggolan drive will cancel it out before Martinez puts the Nerazzurri ahead after the break. Muriel’s introduction for the last 25ish minutes, though, will flip the script, and he’ll eventually pull it level.
And now I’ve doomed my poor Viola boys to a comprehensive defeat. I’m so sorry.
What do you think? Post your comments below?