Stop me if you've heard this one before: Tottenham Hotspur are traveling to Florence to take on Fiorentina in a Europa League knock-out round game. Yeah, this is exactly how Spurs got eliminated last year, but we're a totally different team this season.
As for Firoentina, well I have no idea. So, I spoke with The Tito from SB Nation's wonderful Fiorentina blog Viola Nation to ask him just what exactly it is that Fiorentina do and why I should care about this match.
I also answered some questions for Viola Nation. They can be found here.
Cartilage Free Captain: I'll come right out an say it, I've not watched any Serie A this year. I prefer to punish myself using self-flagellation or by watching Ligue 1, but I suppose if I get bored of that I could watch Italian football. So, are Fiorentina any good this year?
Viola Nation: Fiorentina are really weird this year, honestly. They've occasionally looked like the best team in the league, and have occasionally looked lost against relegation-threatened clubs. They're in a strange place, having lost pretty much all their star attackers from last season as well as former coach/fashion icon Vincenzo Montella, but under Paulo Sousa (whom you may recall from stints with Swansea and Leicester a few years ago), they've maintained similar principles and results to the last couple of years. Short answer, I suppose, is that Fiorentina is similar to where they were this time last year.
CFC: Do you guys care about this fixture? Or this competition in general? English teams generally can't be bothered, but I say a trophy is a trophy. What are the feelings on the Europa League among Italian fans?
VN: Honestly, I have no idea. After leading Serie A for nearly a month, la Viola have regressed to the mean and now have a tenuous hold on third. There's one school of thought that says the Europa League is the only realistic chance for silverware this season, with the team already eliminated from the Coppa Italia (less said the better). On the other hand, the Europa League is really strong this year, and for a team that's desperate to qualify for the Champions League, sinking a bunch of resources into it, especially since a win is pretty improbable, seems like a terrible idea. Sousa's played it close to the vest thus far, so we may not know until he names his lineup. On the other (third?) hand, Fiorentina doesn't have much (read: any) squad depth, so there will certainly be some regular starters out there. Gun to my head, I'd say we care more about this one than yall do, but not by much.
CFC: You lot sure love a red card in Europa League matches. What's the deal there? Was Paulo Sousa just telling his players to literally go out and destroy his former team?
VN: Ah, I see you're familiar with the saga of Facundo Roncaglia, who's basically nonchalant violence personified. He's actually a reasonably good defender, the type who basically man-marks his opponent out of the match. He does have a history of violence on the pitch, though, and the absurd tackles are kind of his thing. Ante Rebić has since left on loan, but he's kind of a hothead as well, although, considering that he's just 22, is a striker who was being played at wingback, and had just had a birthday the day before and was probably dealing with a literal or figurative hangover, I'll give him a slight pass. The rest of the team is usually way more level-headed (honestly, they could use a mean streak sometimes). I can't remember Gonzalo Rodríguez ever making a tackle like that in his nearly four years in Florence, and I doubt you'll see anything deserving of a red in this one. Unless someone looks at/touches/thinks of Roncaglia, in which case all bets are off.
CFC: The internet tells me that Fiorentina, like all Italian clubs (I assume), play a back three. However, that's all I've been able to learn about your style. Tell me you're not just a boring possession side that play sound defense and try not to concede silly goals.
VN: We're a boring possession side that play sound defense and try not to concede silly goals. Unfortunately, the defensive side of that can get pretty iffy. Fiorentina is definitely vulnerable to the counter attack, particularly out wide--pretty much what you'd expect from a side with wingbacks and no wingers. Compounding the problem is that some of the wingbacks are defensively frail. More positively, this is a team with a lot of technical quality through the middle. Of ten outfield players, at least eight are going to be good or excellent passers, with outstanding range and vision. I think what'll really clue everyone into how Fiorentina are going to play this one will be pressure: when this team presses from the front, they're lethal. Due to the dearth of depth, however, that's not very sustainable for every match in a long season, and Sousa usually only deploys the pressure in big games.
CFC: All of your interesting players seem to have left for "greener" pastures (Rossi, Gomez, Salah, etc.) Now you're left with....Borja Valero Jospi Illicic? I don't know. Tell me who I should be worried about here. Is it Mati Fernandez?
VN: Federico Bernardeschi is probably the key man, which is crazy. He's 22 years old and has reportedly been tracked by Bayern, Barca, Real Madrid, and similarly mid-tier clubs. By trade, he's an attacking midfielder although usually plays , comfortable out wide or through the middle. He's very energetic and likes to dribble past people, although he's got an eye for the killer pass and a knack for popping up in the box to score. A couple months ago, I'd have said Nikola Kalinić, who simply couldn't stop scoring, but he's gone cold of late. Other than that, Borja Valero is his usual magisterial self, controlling games and moving the ball into dangerous areas with bald elegance, and Josip Iličić remains equally capable of doing something unbelievable or nothing at all, sometimes in the same game.
CFC: Give me a score prediction for this tie.
VN: Hmm. How's 3-3 sound, with Spurs winning on away goals? I think Spurs are a better team right now, frankly, but this is the sort of tie that Fiorentina usually picks things up for, only to fall short in the most agonizing way possible. An entertaining loss on away goals would fit that script all too well.
Thanks to Tito for answering my questions. If you're interested in following Viola Nation on Twitter, they can be found at @Viola_Nation.