The joy around the Artemio Franchi on Tuesday night was there for all to see as referee Davide Massa’s final whistle sounded to confirm Fiorentina’s first appearance in a Coppa Italia final since 2001, and with it the chance to win a first major piece of silverware since that same date.
It hasn’t always been this good for Viola fans. In the intervening thirteen years between then and now, the club has suffered bankruptcy, been forced to start life again in the fourth tier of Italian football, worked its way back to Serie A, been embroiled in the infamous ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal and returned to the Champions League. Quite the rollercoaster journey, and one that thanks to Tuesday’s win took another turn for the better.
It could have been oh so different though. Ultimately, two goals of the highest calibre from Manuel Pasqual and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado decided a closely contested tie that could so easily have gone the other way. While, of course, having that little bit of extra quality at crucial moments is precisely why the top teams are just that, the fact that a mid-table Udinese side enjoyed both the lion’s share of possession and chances on Tuesday would suggest that Vincenzo Montella’s squad are starting to feel the strain of having played so many games this season.
Montella all but admitted as much with his post-match comments. “We are growing a great deal, although there are some physical problems when playing so often,” he said. “We saw great team spirit tonight and I’d say the desire was what allowed us to win even more than our technique.”
There is no time for Montella to feel sorry for himself though as crucial games will continue to come with relentless regularity over the coming weeks. After facing Inter on Saturday, the Viola resume their Europa League campaign by playing a two-legged tie with Danish side Esbjerg. Sandwiched in between those games is a tough trip to take on fellow European hopefuls Parma, and they then face Lazio, Juventus, Napoli and Milan in four of their next five league encounters after that. There is also the tantalising prospect of a crunch last-16 Europa League meeting with the Old Lady on the horizon, should both teams make it that far.
Testing times indeed for Montella then, who will need to see every ounce of that team spirit he alluded to if his side are to emerge from the next month or so with their aspirations for the season still intact. They have coped admirably so far to maintain a challenge on three fronts, particularly in Serie A where their efforts have taken them to just three points shy of third placed Napoli and Champions League qualification. Concern remains though that the sheer weight of fixtures may ultimately prove to be the undoing of what is, in comparison to their rivals, a thin squad.
This is not to say they cannot succeed. This season has already seen highly impressive league victories over Juve and Milan, offering proof that the Viola can rally for the big occasion when needed. Though the squad will be further stretched by a hamstring injury to Stefan Savic picked up on Tuesday, Montella has also recently been boosted by the loan signings of Anderson and Modibo Diakite and the return from injury of key players such as Alberto Aquilani and Mario Gomez. With the likes of Massimo Ambrosini, Nenad Tomovic and Ante Rebic all coming back soon too, the Coach may have a little more room for manoeuvre when it comes to squad rotation and being able to effectively manage the workload of his players than he has previously had.
It is a big ask though, and one made all the more difficult with the continued absence of top scorer Giuseppe Rossi, who was prolific in the first half of the season. Fiorentina will have to do without him as their season reaches a critical stage, though they will hope that Gomez can fill the void to some extent once he is properly match fit. Montella will therefore need to demonstrate every bit of the guile and skill that has made him one of Europe’s most revered and sought after young Coaches if he wants to keep his side in the hunt for silverware and Champions League football. If he is to succeed, the camaraderie he has harnessed in the Viola dressing room that he so often talks about is sure to be absolutely key.