Cesare Prandelli, Pantaleo Corvino and the Fiorentina players can all relax on whichever sunny beach takes their fancy, safe in the knowledge that they have achieved their goals this season – truly a job well done.
With the big three of Inter, Juventus and Milan still dominating Serie A, Fiorentina’s realistic aim at the moment is to consistently finish in fourth place and qualifying for the Champions League. Prior to Prandelli’s appointment, the club had been crying out for some stability both at managerial and ownership level, and with the former Parma man’s steady guidance, the team and its supporters are starting to reap the benefits. If Prandelli stays in charge and the team qualifies for the Champions League year after year, annually receiving the financial rewards that come with European football, then maybe, just maybe, the big three could turn into a big four – but one step at a time. Right now, with the current constrictive wage structure emplaced at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, Prandelli and Co. need to focus on fighting off other challengers for the right to play in Europe’s most prestigious club tournament, and this season, just like the season before, they have successfully managed to hold off their rivals.
It didn’t start so well, however, as the team managed just one win in their first four league games, laboring to a 1-0 home victory over Bologna. They had progressed to the group stages of the Champions League, overcoming Slavia Prague 2-0 on aggregate, but a heavy 3-0 defeat at Lazio demonstrated the uninspiring start Prandelli’s side made to their season. Three goals in eight second half minutes shattered any kind of half-time team talk the Coach had tried to convey to his players, and in truth it could have been more, as Mauro Zarate scored one but missed a hatful of chances. Clearly if la Viola had any ambitions to replicate their previous campaign’s success, things were going to have to change quickly. A 1-0 home victory to would-be fourth place challengers Genoa proved a turning-point, but there were some priceless points dropped early on and the Fiorentina tifosi were left hoping it wouldn’t prove costly.
Arguably one of the factors for Fiorentina’s slow start to the campaign was the loss of the inspirational central midfielder, Fabio Liverani. The Italian veteran had provided the creative spark in the middle of the park for the two seasons prior, playing an instrumental role in their 2007/08 push for Europe. He left in the following summer, finding a better contract at Palermo, and the side missed him for a long time as the adaptation process took its time. Without Liverani, the inventive mantle was passed to the younger Riccardo Montolivo, who gradually grew into the playmaker role with impressive success – but the aesthetic quality of the team, as well as the early season results, suffered somewhat for the first few months without the former Lazio man’s influence.
Nonetheless, Alberto Gilardino’s turn and finish against Gian Piero Gasperini’s gifted Genoa side sparked a confident and rewarding October, as Fiorentina won three games on the bounce before a hard-fought goalless draw at home to reigning-champions Inter. The improvement going forward was matched by the defenders, as the back-line was breached only once in the month, courtesy of a Fabio Simplicio strike. With Sebastian Frey in good form and well-protected by the men in front of him, as well as Adrian Mutu and Gilardino starting to gel, the results were demonstrating how well-constructed a squad Prandelli and Corvino had put together. The 3-1 victory away to Palermo in week eight left Fiorentina just a point off the leaders, lessening the impact of the disappointing results in September.
By November, Fiorentina’s Champions League campaign had begun in earnest, and was already showing signs that the Tuscan outfit would have to settle for UEFA Cup football in the latter part of the season. A mix of bad luck and poor defending had resulted in Fiorentina throwing away healthy leads, notably out in Lyon in the group’s first fixture. Gilardino had headed in two almost identical goals to put the away side 2-0 up at half-time in the Stade de Gerland, but second half strikes from Frederic Piquionne and hot-shot striker Karim Benzema snatched a point for the French Champions. Avoiding defeat away in Lyon may have seemed a decent result at the time and a good start to the group for la Viola, but with hindsight Prandelli’s men had a missed opportunity there.
A poor home performance against Steaua Bucharest where Fiorentina was lucky not to have lost were it not for Frey’s heroics, signified more dropped points before they were put to the sword out in Munich. In the reverse fixture at the Artemio Franchi, Adrian Mutu had volleyed home in the tenth minute, giving the home side something to hold on to, but once again they failed to increase their lead and were punished by a late Tim Borowski composed finish. The writing was well and truly on the wall when Jean Makoun and Benzema put Lyon 2-0 up within half an hour in Florence. Gila registered Fiorentina on the scoreboard in the second half, but Prandelli’s men could not match the French side’s comeback in the earlier match. A 1-0 victory away to Steaua proved vital in qualifying for the UEFA Cup, but supporters will have been left extremely frustrated by their team’s Champions League performance.
One source of satisfaction will have been the smooth transition from new signing to integral first team member that Alberto Gilardino was displaying. Having terrorized defences everywhere under Prandelli at Parma between 2002-2005 where he netted 50 times in just 96 appearances, he got his big money move to Milan in the summer of 2005 for an estimated £20m. Despite flashes of his former self in matches such as the 3-0 demolition of Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final of 2007, the pressure that comes with a hefty price tag and a move to a super power of world football seemed to prey on Gila’s mind. He was deemed surplus to requirements at the San Siro with the arrival of Brazilian wonderkid Alexandre Pato, and when Corvino had a £13m offer accepted by Adriano Galliani, the Biella-born front-man made the right decision to team up with his former Coach once more.
A master of reinvigorating and getting the best out of his players, Prandelli gave Gila the confidence to simply do his thing, and with the help of the creative midfielders behind him, the goals started to flow. He managed to hit the back of the net four times in the Champions League, and finished fourth in the Capocannoniere list with 19 league goals. Gila’s presence as the lone striker dislodged Giampaolo Pazzini from the starting eleven, who was promptly sold to Sampdoria in the January transfer window. Following Pazzini’s criticism of Prandelli’s sparing use of the striker in the build up to the Fiorentina vs. Sampdoria fixture towards the end of the season, the Orzinuovi-born Tactician simply said: “We have Gila” – underlining the faith the two seem to have in each other, which can only be good for la Viola tifosi.
Returning to the league, Fiorentina followed up an excellent October with an inconsistent November, courtesy of two decent home wins over Atalanta and Udinese, but three poor away defeats to local rivals Siena, Sardinian counterparts Cagliari and European challengers Roma – losing all of these matches 1-0. Luck seemed to turn in December as they won all three of their league games, including a 4-1 battering away to Torino. Mutu’s goal was the pick of the bunch with a beautifully curled free kick, while Gila did what he does best with two poacher’s goals, and even Serbian youngster Zdravko Kuzmanovic got in on the act. Third place was Fiorentina’s after Week 18, after a hard-fought 1-0 victory at Sampdoria. A Montolivo goal proved the difference over Samp but controversy ensued over a possible equaliser that wasn’t given as the ball was deemed to not have completely crossed the line, and la Viola hung on for a precious three points. December also saw Fiorentina’s short-lived exploits in the Coppa Italia, crashing to a 1-0 home defeat to Torino.
The winter break seemed more of a hindrance than a help for Prandelli, as he saw his team recapture their dismal early season form and slump to three defeats in a row. Granted, two of them were difficult 1-0 away losses to both Milan and Juventus, but the Coach would have been extremely disappointed with the first of the three. Home to a Lecce side who hadn’t won in four months (and were eventually relegated), with an almost full strength side, Fiorentina had to be looking for a victory, and an emphatic one at that. However, the Lecce players clearly hadn’t read the script as first Guillermo Giacomazzi and then Javier Castillo breached the Viola defence with Brazilian Felipe Melo registering in between the two strikes. Adding insult to injury, Mutu landed awkwardly on his elbow, rendering it dislocated – the beginning of an injury-plagued second half to the season for the flamboyant Romanian forward.
But, once again, Prandelli lifted his players, and following a 2-1 home win over the dangerous Napoli, an impressive February began with a 3-1 victory at Bologna. Two other home wins over Lazio and Chievo became before and after Fiorentina’s game of the season (and Football Italiano’s Game of the Year) – a 3-3 away draw to Genoa. This game had everything – goals, comebacks, red cards, controversy, penalties, hat-tricks – a wonderful advert for Italian football. A well-worked team goal finished by Thiago Motta in the twelfth minute was followed by the second bookable offence for Giuseppe Biava in the 30th minute. However, instead of spurring on the away side, Genoa went on to score another before half time, with Raffaele Palladino racing in to strike home. A deserved penalty was duly dispatched by the supposedly Inter-bound Diego Milito in the 57th minute, but just three minutes later, a dropped catch by Rubinho, led to a penalty for Fiorentina. Mutu stepped up and converted, and followed it up with a great free-kick in the 81st minute. Still there was more to come, as Prandelli threw on as many attacking substitutions as he could, and with 94 minutes on the clock, Mutu completed his hat-trick with a stunning effort following some nervous confusion in the Genoa penalty area. A truly breathtaking game and perhaps the most valuable point of Fiorentina’s season.
Despite going out of Europe to Ajax, and two consecutive 2-0 defeats at home to Palermo and away to Inter, Prandelli’s team really came into its own in the final third of the season. With Genoa breathing down their necks for fourth position, la Viola supporters couldn’t have wished for a better time for their side to come into form. Ironically, the team’s improved performances and results were achieved without Mutu, who was out for the rest of the season with a troublesome knee injury. This forced Prandelli to think more creatively, and with a switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Melo and Montolivo patrolling the midfield, Gila was the lone target man supported by a triumvirate of attacking, creative midfielders.
With a switch from left-back to the left side of this three-pronged attack, Peruvian Juan Manuel Vargas was like a new player for the team, as well as the emergence of young pretender Stevan Jovetic. From the 2-0 defeat to Inter to the 1-1 draw away to Lecce that guaranteed Champions League football next year, Fiorentina went on a run of seven wins in eight games (the one defeat a 3-1 disappointment away to Udinese). Forget the Champions League, this kind of form is what title challenges are made of, and with a few games to go, a second-placed finish was even a possibility. In the end, Prandelli and his charges had to settle for fourth place – a position they would have gladly taken had it been offered at the start of the season. Now the hope for the Coach, the board, the team and the supporters is that the team can have a successful summer in the transfer window and kick on next season, with continuous Champions League qualification and maybe even a cup success.