After Fiorentina's limitations surfaced in Serie A, and in spite of growing tensions between Coach, fans and management, the team must prepare for a European in-or-out game that could still salvage their season.
Wait – haven't we already seen this film? It's been on for years in Florence, and there's no sign that anyone's going to change it. The promising young Italians, the frustrated Coach, the highs, the slumps, and that cozy fourth or fifth place. Even the bricks of the Ponte Vecchio must be getting tired.
As the Viola prepare to face Borussia Mönchengladbach, the atmosphere around the team is not particularly salubrious. Coach Paulo Sousa's days are apparently numbered, their top players can't take the heat, and their directors call for calm and fan the flames in the space of the same 24 hours.
This is a shame, because the Europa League Round of 32 first leg, which will be in Germany, actually makes for a very interesting game. Gladbach are ninth in the Bundesliga, whilst the Viola are seventh, so success abroad is a priority for both teams.
This is also a really tough game to call. Although Fiorentina may be the favourites (by a small margin, if at all), the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams seem very much to cancel each other out.
Fiorentina have greater technical quality, but they are more prone to errors. Compared to their rivals they are rather lacking in balance, and it is indeed very telling that their last two Serie A games should have seen them winning by 3-0 and losing by 4-0.
Borussia Gladbach are a lot more square, with no conspicuous weaknesses, but at the same time no special strengths. Even with a solid game-plan, they are not easy to break down. They are more defensive, perhaps a little too much so, in the same measure in which Fiorentina are a bit too attack-minded (and so much for the national football stereotypes...).
Both teams rely less on teamwork and tested manoeuvres than on the quality of their individuals to get their goals. The likes of Viola players Nikola Kalinic, Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa are balanced out on the other side by Raffael, Lars Stindl and Thorgan Hazard, whose relative weight within their own team is equally large.
In addition to the above, both teams happen to be vulnerable to each other's specialties. Fiorentina are not very well-equipped to deal with the quick counters down the wings preferred by Gladbach, and they'll have a particularly torrid time if they allow themselves individual errors in defence.
The Borussians, on the other hand, have been consistently poor at defending against long shots and set pieces, both of which Fiorentina can do well. And for all of their defensive focus, the Foals still lack the necessary tactical intelligence to handle a player as intuitive as Bernardeschi.
Fiorentina are a bit stronger as a team, but the first game could be crucial, and that will be played away. There's really not much to be predicted here. This is a game that could just as well end up 6-0 on aggregate for either side, as it could end up rolling into a bloody, exasperating penalty shoot-out.
The trouble for the Gigliati is that no result will ever be satisfactory. The club seems deeply lacking in perspective: the expectations of the fans, the directors, the players and the (transitory) Coaches are seldom congruous with each other.
There are reasons to criticise the near-hysterical football environments of teams like Roma and Napoli, but at least everyone there agrees that their club must aim for the top. This is not the case in Florence, where even the tifosi are split between cynics and idealists, lucid dreamers and pragmatists.
If Fiorentina lose, all-round criticism will descend like hail, forgetting as ever that the team's very solid foundations could allow for rapid growth under the right management.
If they win, it will mask their ongoing failure to address their limitations – namely, that while they can certainly beat teams like Gladbach, they never seem to have enough gas in their engine to go all the way in the Europa League.
Fiorentina need a powerful internal shake-up. In particular, they need to get better at planning growth that is sustainable. It is infuriating that even as they prepare for such an exciting match, their directors show few signs of working in that direction. The game against Borussia Gladbach may be utterly unpredictable; the aftermath, sadly, not enough.
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