Nerves were clearly praying on the minds of the Fiorentina players, as they just about managed to scrape a draw away to Lecce, thus acquiring the point needed to ensure Champions League football at the Stadio Franchi for the second consecutive season. An abject display was not in the script for Cesare Prandelli’s men, and were it not for an inspired performance by goalkeeper Sebastien Frey and a last-minute equaliser from seasoned professional Martin Jorgensen, la Viola fans would still be biting the nails leading into the campaign’s final game. However, this weekend’s home fixture against the mighty Milan now has some added spice, as a win by two clear goals for Fiorentina would see the Tuscan outfit leapfrog Carlo Ancelotti’s side, following the Rossoneri’s surprise home defeat to Roma. A third placed finish would be the icing on the cake of what has been a fantastic season for the club and its supporters, who no doubt are ecstatic with the prospect of entertaining Europe’s finest once more.
Leading up to the game, Fiorentina’s Serie A record at Lecce is poor to say the least – one win in ten matches demonstrating the difficulty la Viola have had when traveling to the Puglia region. Past performances proved to be an insightful indicator of how Fiorentina would perform, as Prandelli’s players never really got into their rhythm. Stevan Jovetic looked the most likely to spark anything for the away side, as he volleyed just wide from Franco Semioli’s centre. Creative maestros Juan Vargas and Riccardo Montolivo were uncharacteristically lacking in invention, meaning that top goalscorer Alberto Gilardino was starved of service up front. In truth, Fiorentina should have been a goal down a lot sooner than they were, as the industrious Andrea Zanchetta slipped in the unmarked Jose Castillo for the simplest of one-on-ones. However, the Argentine managed to fluff his lines in the most embarrassing of fashions, stroking the ball well wide of the goal – a late candidate for miss-of-the-season. Zanchetta had previously stung Frey’s fingertips with a fine free-kick effort from 25 yards, but it was Castillo who again squandered a golden opportunity for his side. Making a good run in behind the surprisingly lacklustre Viola defence, the forward never really looked confident as he ran towards Sebastien Frey, and contrived to tamely strike the ball at the French stopper, who on this kind of form pushed it out with ease.
Prandelli knew that fortune had been kind on his players, and that if they didn’t heed Castillo’s warnings, sooner or later they were going to concede. And so it proved, as Simone Tiribocchi succeeded where his strike partner had failed, rushing past two defenders down the right side of the box before delicately lifting the ball beyond the helpless Frey into the corner of the net. A finish of the highest order, and no more than what i Giallorossi deserved. Remember, Lecce were playing for their Serie A status as a victory may have taken their survival battle into the last round of fixtures, and they can certainly be commended for their endeavor in this match. However, the now relegated team will be ruing the chances they continued to miss after Tiribocchi broke the deadlock, and as Lecce failed to increase their lead, Fiorentina started to look threatening at the other end of the pitch. Gilardino went close with a volley, as did Vargas with a header across goal, before Melo struck a fierce free kick just wide of the post. This turned out to be Melo’s last meaningful act as he was shown a straight red card for his strange decision to raise his boot and come down studs-up on a Lecce player, even though there was no immediate danger to be seen. Perhaps the Brazilian was nervous with the clock ticking away, but nevertheless his behaviour cannot be excused and he was rightly punished.
The sending-off did not help the losing team’s cause, but anyone who then assumed “game over” clearly does not know the Prandelli-inspired hunger and desire of this Fiorentina team. Alessandro Gamberini, the assured centre-back, hopefully chipped a ball into the penalty area, where Jorgensen managed to get a touch and, via an inadvertent one-two with an opposition defender, tucked the ball away under Andrea Rosati’s tall frame. Cue the wild celebrations from players and fans alike as a top four place was confirmed, whilst Lecce’s slim hopes of survival were replaced by miserable thoughts of impending relegation.
Prandelli did nothing to curb the party atmosphere at the end of the game, and rightly so, as his normal pensive self seems to downplay most success. “Tonight we are celebrating fourth place,” commented the canny tactician. “In these four years the team has showed all its values…these are very delicate matches, an episode is enough to bring down your confidence and morale. The heat and the tension made it difficult for us. Sebastien [Frey] did well to rescue the result, we have hung on and obtained some very good results in these last two months.” No-one could argue with that statement, as Prandelli has guided his team to title-winning form of late, with six wins in eight games. But the focus was, at least for the evening after the game, on reflecting on the Champions League qualification: “I order everyone to celebrate because we have done something extraordinary, it’s a suffered and well deserved fourth place finish.” Prandelli continued on to say that by Tuesday all eyes will be on Milan, and that third place would be “important.” However, it seems the man from Orzinuovi is happy with his lot, and doesn’t intend to put any pressure on his players going into next week’s exciting denouement to the campaign – seemingly an experienced managerial approach.
Noises from the club have since surfaced on the task in hand this weekend, with ex-Milan hitman Gilardino suggesting that “fighting until the end for an important objective like third place is always beautiful…avoiding the preliminaries would be a dream, and we will do everything to do so.” No doubt Gila also has the agenda of proving his previous employers wrong for letting him go, although he will hope to be more successful than Sampdoria striker Giampaolo Pazzini was against la Viola a few weeks ago. Peruvian wide-man Vargas has taken his Coach’s lead that usurping Milan would be a wonderful bonus, but the season has already been a great success: “Our goal at the start of the season was to finish fourth, and we have already achieved that. For this reason I am truly happy, so it doesn’t matter what happens against Milan.” Similar talk of the players giving their all against i Rossoneri has been echoed by Donadel and Pasqual, as they gear up to give their all for one last match.
The benefit of finishing third, as has already been pointed out by both Gila and Prandelli, is that it provides a fast-ticket to the group stages of the Champions League. This can be used as a major bargaining chip when convincing players to join the club, as European football is assured for at least half the season. Players such as Hernan Crespo and Lucas Leivia (who was heavily linked with a move to Florence on Tuesday) will be easier to attract with an automatic final standing. The money that comes with the Champions League is also assured, and can instantly be added to the coffers for transfers and wages for next year. Not only this, but the season can start for already-qualified teams when it is supposed to in Italy, instead of a few weeks early for the third-round qualifier, and this can play an integral part in preparations. These are three major reasons why finishing fourth is very good, but finishing third or above is much, much better. Corvino and the board will be crossing their fingers in the hope that Prandelli can inspire his team once more, as will Prandelli himself of course, to the necessary victory over Beckham and co. If the team need an extra incentive, they need only look at their potential opposition for the qualifying round: Dynamo Moscow, Sporting Lisbon, FC Twente, Celtic, Anderlecht, Panathinaikos, Sparta Prague and this year’s UEFA Cup winners Shaktar Donestk to name but a few.
Finally, moving away from the Champions League chat and the usual transfer speculation over in Florence, a quick word on Martin Jorgensen. The club’s vice-captain has been at Fiorentina for five seasons now, since his move from Udinese, racking up 126 appearances and 13 goals. He is currently harbouring for a new contract, as his current one expires this summer, and will have done his chances no harm by underling his credentials this weekend. Fiorentina are losing, with ten minutes to go, it’s not working for the young pretender Jovetic, so who does Prandelli throw on? Ever reliable, Mr. Jorgensen, who goes on to do the business for his team and secure European qualification. It is difficult to argue against Jorgensen being a useful squad player next season, given his decision-making and clever attitude on the pitch, but perhaps Corvino and Prandelli have other targets and plans in mind. However, as is shown time and time again football, experience is invaluable, and so it makes sense to give the Dane a new contract, so long as his demands aren’t too excessive. Considering the relatively young attack that Fiorentina possesses, Jorgensen can provide a valuable service for la Viola next season.