Coppa Italia: Runners-up / Team rating: 7 / Top scorer: Rossi (16)
Europe: Europa League Round of 16
Fiorentina had their struggles in the second half of the season but they are well placed to achieve long term success and stability, writes Richard Thomas.
Following years of turbulence and upheaval after the turn of the millennium, it seems Fiorentina are taking a different approach to business these days. Where in 2002 the Viola were relegated, declared bankrupt and forced to start life again in the fourth tier of Italian football, they now seem to have a team in place both on and off the pitch that will deliver the club long term stability and, whisper it, success.
After the appointment of Vincenzo Montella as Coach in 2012 and a subsequent fourth place finish in his first year in charge at the Artemio Franchi, hope was high in Tuscany that the Viola would challenge to go one step further this time around and reclaim a Champions League place. “The fans are right to dream,” Montella said last summer. “Hopefully this team can repeat the results of last season, but we are aware that this time it will be all the more difficult.”
Difficult though it certainly would be, tifosi liked what they had seen of the 39-year-old’s tenure thus far. An ambitious and attractive playing style had been implemented, with the results of it securing an improvement of nine places in their League position from the previous year. It was easy to see why supporters took to the former Roma striker so quickly.
Fiorentina also made their intentions for the coming campaign clear in their transfer dealings. Mario Gomez’s arrival at the Artemio Franchi from Bayern Munich was widely regarded as a real coup, while the club also secured a more permanent deal for Juan Cuadrado following an impressive loan spell. Other significant signings included Ante Rebic, Josip Ilicic, Massimo Ambrosini, Marko Bakic and Joaquin Sanchez. The losses of Stevan Jovetic and Adem Ljajic to Manchester City and Roma respectively were a blow, though necessary if the club were to cover their expenditures.
Come the first day of the Serie A season, a home meeting with Catania in late August, there was a real sense of anticipation in the Florence air. Montella’s men delivered, winning that match and taking 10 points from the first 12 on offer to be up there with the League’s early leaders. The only real disappointment early on was the loss of Gomez for several months after he ruptured knee ligaments. Unfortunately, this was a sign of things to come.
Though they began to fall off the blistering pace set by front-runners Roma, Napoli and Juventus, it remained a highly promising opening few months of the campaign, the highlight of which was undoubtedly a famous 4-2 home win over hated rivals the Old Lady. With 25 minutes of the match remaining, the Viola appeared to be down and out after goals by Carlos Tevez and Paul Pogba had put Juve in a commanding and, if you have a persuasion for purple, all too familiar position.
However, in the space of 15 scarcely believable minutes, the Tuscans scored four times as Antonio Conte’s champions imploded before the Artemio Franchi’s eyes. Striker Giuseppe Rossi, who had started the season in sensational form, scored a hat-trick as Fiorentina turned a two goal deficit into a two goal victory. It provoked scenes of wild jubilation at the full-time whistle as well as dreams of a sustained title challenge. “This team is built to win,” Rossi commented after the shock triumph. “We can challenge anyone.”
Challenging they certainly were, and on multiple fronts too. Five wins out of six Europa League group matches ensured that the club’s continental adventure would be extended into the new year, while the Juve result provided the catalyst for a run of seven wins in 10 League games heading into the winter break. At the turn of the year, the Viola found themselves fourth and just three points off that coveted final Champions League place.
However, that was about as good as the situation got for Montella’s side. They were dealt a devastating blow at the start of 2014 as Rossi, the scorer of 14 goals in the opening half of the campaign, succumbed to the curse of the knee injury and did not return until the closing weeks of the season. The team’s form remained good for the time being as they set up a mouth-watering Europa League Last 16 tie with Juve and booked a Coppa Italia final date with Napoli.
However, sometime around mid-February the constraints of a comparatively small squad to their rivals finally told on Fiorentina. A 2-1 home defeat to Inter, in which Mauro Icardi scored a controversial winner, was the start of a four match winless run in Serie A that put them well adrift in the race for third. The Old Lady gained revenge for their League defeat by knocking the Viola out of Europe, while poor form and an injury crisis were compounded by the club engaging themselves in a full-on media row with match officials over a number of high profile decisions going against them. The low point of the saga was the Tuscans having two men sent-off against Parma, with influential midfielder Borja Valero subsequently given a three match ban for ‘laying a hand’ on the referee.
The Viola eventually recovered their form and composure to a degree but the damage had been done. Though they never looked in danger of finishing lower than fourth, they looked equally unlikely to seriously trouble Rafa Benitez’s Partenopei above them. Their League campaign petered out to an extent, though there was still time for the injury gods to conspire against Gomez once more.
A 3-1 Coppa Italia Final defeat to Napoli ensured the Viola couldn’t bring a 13 year trophy drought to an end and it capped a disappointing final few months of the season for Montella. Nevertheless, they were the victims of some wretched fortune in that time and the campaign can still be viewed as a success on the whole. When playing, the likes of Rossi, Valero and Cuadrado in particular excelled and the challenge now will be to keep hold of them and, perhaps more importantly, keep them fit next term.
“Fiorentina have shown they can challenge anyone, even with Juventus,” Montella reflected last week. “Our objective is not to lose our identity, our ideas on football. I feel well-respected here by the fans and above all the club. I am staying.”
If Montella is true to his word, and he seems the type, it may just be the start of something special at the Artemio Franchi. With two years of experience now under his belt and his players battle-hardened from their excertions this season, his project appears well set.
Fiorentina’s relative success and attractive playing style this season have ensured the 39-year-old’s stock has continued to rise. He has established a reputation as one of the most revered young Coaches in European football. Much of the Viola’s hope of breaking back into the Champions League is likely to depend on their ability to keep hold of him long term.
With the long term absences of Rossi and Gomez stretching the Viola’s resources up front, the Spaniard has enjoyed another stellar season in the midfield. The 29-year-old has been a revelation since arriving at the club from Villareal in 2012, and it is still seen as a mystery, at least in the peninsula, as to why he cannot get an international call-up.
- Fiorentina finished the season on 65 points, five fewer than last term. Despite this, they still secured their second successive fourth place finish.
- Mario Gomez made only 15 appearances for the Viola during an injury blighted season. When considering his transfer fee, it equates to €1m per appearance.
- Giuseppe Rossi, despite missing almost the entire second half of the season, ended it as Serie A’s ninth-top scorer with 16 goals – just six behind Capocannoniere winner Ciro Immobile.
- Fiorentina’s footballing philosophy is shown by the fact they finish the season with the highest average possession per match - 57.34 per cent.