With Juventus struggling, this season's scudetto looks wide open.
When the Paulo Sousa coached Fiorentina rattled in friendly wins this summer against Barcelona and Chelsea no less, most of us took the results with the extra-large pinch of salt applicable to pre-season friendlies. Those results might set fans dreaming, one reasoned, but when the real action begins it will be a very different story.
Six games into the season, however, the Fiorentina fans can keep on dreaming. After a stunning 4-1 destruction job of unbeaten Inter at the San Siro on Sunday night, Fiorentina now stand proudly top of Serie A, doing so for the first time since February 1999.
Those were days when the fate of Fiorentina wrested on the shoulders of two of the greatest legends of the post-war Italian game, namely coach Giovanni Trapattoni and Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta. Prior to that exhilarating moment, the last time Fiorentina actually won the Serie A title came 46 years ago, back in the 1968-69 season.
So then, is it even remotely realistic to list Fiorentina amongst this season’s championship contenders? Are they not rather the classic “belle of the ball”, one of those top-level teams that will often play good football, often win important matches but never lift a title, at home or abroad?
On the morning after their unexpected destruction job of Inter, the Fiorentina team director, Daniele Pradé, was keeping his feet on the ground, telling state radio, RAI: “You can take nothing for granted in our league…anything can happen and we will take it game by game…and we will see how we go, it’s simply too soon to be deciding who is going to win the title.”
Owned since 2002 by the leather goods tycoon, Diego Della Valle, Fiorentina have been parked in the thin-oxygen zone of Serie A for much of the last decade, having finished fourth five times in the last seven seasons. In that same period, they have been regularly competitive in Europe, losing a 2008 UEFA Cup semi-final to Glasgow Rangers and last year’s Europa League semi-final to FC Seville.
This is a good record but it is hardly the sort of stuff to make Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United et al quake in their boots. Furthermore, it would be very mistaken to read too much into Sunday night’s San Siro result given that this was one of those games where everything that could go wrong for league leaders, Inter, did indeed go wrong.
For a start, Inter’s normally reliable Slovene goalkeeper, Samir Handanovic, made a total mess of a simple defensive pass back to him in only the third minute of the game, conceding a penalty when he brought down Fiorentina’s former Blackburn and Dnpro striker, Croat Nikola Kalinic. Slovene Josip Ilicic slotted home the spot kick to leave Inter 1-0 down after just four minutes.
In a panic to get themselves back into the game, Inter were then twice caught out by Fiorentina counter-attacks, conceding two further goals to Kalinic in the 18th and 23rd minutes. Eight minutes later, the Inter nightmare got worse when Brazilian defender Miranda, again caught out by a Fiorentina counter-attack, pulled down the imposing Kalinic who had broken through, left with only Handanovic to beat. This was a clear red card offence, so Inter were now three goals and a man down with an hour’s football still to be played.
From then on, it was academic stuff as Fiorentina played an extended training ground session, interrupted only by an Inter goal from Mauro Icardi and by the third of the night from Kalinic.
On paper, Fiorentina look to have a less imposing squad than sides like Juventus, AS Roma, Napoli and Inter. In practise, players like Argentine Roncaglia and Astori in defence, Pole Blaszczykowski, Spaniard Borja Valero and Slovene Ilicic in midfield not to mention Kalinic in attack form a useful unit. Could it be, however, that Fiorentina’s best purchase of the summer was their Portuguese coach Paulo Sousa, formerly with Swansea, Leicester and Basel?
When they line out against Portugese side Belenenses in a Europa League tie on Thursday, Fiorentina will be looking to recover from their poor start in the competition. Earlier this month, they conceded two late goals to lose 2-1 at home to Sousa’s old team, Basel. Following this weekend’s triumph, they are sure to be full of gas and gaitors.
Which is more than you can say of Inter, whose five match unbeaten run at the top of the table came to an abrupt halt. Have we read too much into an Inter seasonal start which comprised wins against Atalanta, Carpi, Milan, Chievo and Verona in that order?
For what it is worth, we suspect not. This was one of those games when things went worse than wrong. The important thing is to see how Inter pick themselves up in their weekend away game versus Sampdoria.
Also (again) in trouble this week are champions Juventus, due to face Seville in a Champions League clash tonight (Tuesday). Juventus lost again at the weekend, completely outplayed by Napoli in a 2-1 away defeat. The Old Lady’s midlife crisis is beginning to look serious whilst opponents Napoli, galvanised by Higuain and Insigne, are beginning to look like the real thing.
One thing seems very clear about this season’s Serie A. Namely, we could be in for a lot of suprises, Fiorentina included. One example? After six days, Sassuolo are the only unbeaten team in Serie A. As Fiorentina’s Pradé says, you can take nothing for granted.