Five minutes. That is how close, give or take, Fiorentina were from disaster earlier this week.
Alright, it may sound a bit melodramatic, but for 85 minutes, the Viola were 1-0 down. 1-0 down against not Napoli, Juventus, Roma, Inter, or AC Milan. Not even 1-0 down against Torino, Chievo, Sassuolo, Udinese, or Lazio. But 1-0 down against Crotone. A side who are making their debut in Serie A this season. And a team yet to win a single game in the top flight.
Well, Crotone’s fans were on the cusp of achieving that historical feat against the Viola. Were it not for Davide Astori’s late effort, Fiorentina would have been utterly embarrassed at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. Still, they now find themselves in unwanted company: only Palermo has failed to take maximum points from Crotone this season. The Rosanero barely escaped the drop last season; in fact, their 39 points were only one above the 18th-placed Carpi. Fiorentina, by contrast, finished in a solid fifth spot. Prior to that, they had ended up in fourth place during Vincenzo Montella’s three seasons.
So, it goes without saying that no one could have expected the problems the Tuscan side would face this season. But there they are, in the bottom half of the table, and appear to be no closer to staging a rally-back. What has gone wrong?
A case of the sophomore slump for Paulo Sousa?
Having won some silverware prior to arriving in Florence, Paulo Sousa is no novice tactician. Certainly, without sounding disrespectful to the Israeli Premier League, winning the league title there is no comparison to Serie A, the Bundesliga, Premier League, or La Liga. Nor is even clinching the Swiss Super League title with Basel. Nonetheless, the former Portuguese international initially enjoyed a pretty good start to his debut season. With the exception of matchday three, Fiorentina never dropped below fifth spot in the rankings. And whilst they suffered a decline in the last third of the season – winning just two out of their last 12 league games, the general consensus was that it was not a bad launching pad for Sousa’s second term.
The Viola did lose Marcos Alonso to Chelsea this summer, but the core squad largely remained intact. As such, the expectation was for them to be able to pick up from where they left off. Yes, they lost their season opener to Juventus, but they put in a pretty good shift. The Bianconeri did not just steamroll past them and needed a late goal from record signing Gonzalo Higuain to decide the match. Two back-to-back wins over Roma and Chievo followed, so it appeared that Sousa’s sophomore term was starting to slowly get underway on a decent footing.
However, instead of cruising in his second season, Sousa has been stumbling. Fiorentina have won just three league games so far. They do have a game in hand after having their tie with Genoa cancelled due to bad weather. And their fixture list hasn’t been easy: during that time they have played Juventus, Roma, and Milan. But that still does not excuse the contrasting fortunes the team have experienced in Europe versus in Italy.
Cruising in Europe, but floundering in the league: The very odd case of Fiorentina
Fiorentina’s quartet, which includes sides like Greek outfit PAOK, Slovan Liberec, and Qarabag, is frankly one any team would dream of. Predictably, they have largely cruised through their group stage campaign so far, with eight goals in their past two matches. But are Qarabag really an easier side than Crotone? Is Slovan Liberec a much less formidable foe than Atalanta?
No. But the Viola easily made mincemeat of these two teams. By contrast, they struggled horribly in their domestic commitments. Here’s a stat that will shock most: up until their meeting with Cagliari, Fiorentina had scored just six goals. That’s six in eight games, which had them among the worst performing attacks in the division. They now have 12, but five were netted against the Rossoblu. And even that was far from a comfortable win.
How? Well, usually, when a team is 5-1 to the good, that means game over. Not so much in their clash with the Sardinians. Somehow, they decided to give their opponents a bit of a life-line. Maybe they were bored, some may joke, and needed a bit more excitement. But in all seriousness, to ship two more goals against a team with one of the leakiest defenses so far this campaign is not just questionable, it is downright mind-boggling. Couple that with conceding first to Crotone and nearly, yes, nearly losing that match – at home – and one can forgive the growing and nagging questions about Sousa’s future on the Viola bench.
Players like Nikola Kalinic and Khoumar Babacar appear to be two different people, depending on the tournament. Guilty of some shocking profligacy in domestic affairs, they both have not had nearly as much trouble finding their shooting boots in continental competition. It simply does not make any sense, to say the least, leaving many to wonder if the problem starts from the bench.
All in all, Fiorentina may have avoided defeat in their past three games, but it has been far from an encouraging display from a team that have underachieved this term. Next up on the menu is Bologna. The Rossoblu are tied with them on points, and are known for their resilience on their home turf.
In seasons not too long past, the Gigliati would have been the heavy favorites in this one. Not so much this time around. In fact, they are only backed at at 13/10 to pick up all three points; by contrast, Bologna are backed at at 8/13 to at least secure a draw.
Not exactly a statement of confidence ahead of a game that could be make or break for an already embattled team and their manager.