Fiorentina top Serie A: Can Sousa’s Viola compare to vintage Tuscan teams?
After Fiorentina thrashed favourites Inter Milan 4-1 to reach the Serie A summit for the first time since 1999, Coral writers contemplate what this surprising campaign could have in-store and how Paulo Sousa’s side stacks up against that last table-topping Tuscan team.
It was not yet the new Millennium when the vivacious Viola (20/1 with Coral to lift Europa League) last scaled these heights, just to hammer home this eyebrow-raising achievement.
“Football is like this in Latin countries, it goes from zero to 80,” said Sousa of Fiorentina’s first place fireworks.
“I already said there were other teams who invested heavily for that, but I won’t hold back either, as we have the quality to face every match knowing we can win.” Strong words.
To put it into context, until now the Northern Italians had failed to clinch pole-position in over two-and-a-half decades, after those famous Florentine representatives fluffed their best chance to snatch a Scudetto since the 1960s.
Having parted ways with manager Vincenzo Montella in summer, few could have predicted how Sousa would propel Fiorentina further than his predecessor, but do his current crop compare favorably to those classic 1999 cult heroes?
While the new coaching incumbent at the Stadio Artemio Franchi will undoubtedly be thrilled to lead the Italian top-flight, history suggests the Portuguese gaffer should not get ahead of himself.
This Serie A season is just six matchweeks in, with giants such as Juventus, Lazio, Napoli and AC Milan all enduring patches of poor form, allowing feisty Fiorentina to flex their muscles.
Similar events occurred in 1998/99, when a vibrant Viola led the title charge, before eventually falling away frustratingly to third after flaky performances put paid to title hopes.
Italian football was vastly different back then, so the Artemio Franchi outfit boasted global names on their rarefied roster, such as lethal Argentina legend Gabriel Batistuta, Portuguese midfield plotter Rui Costa and underrated Italian custodian Francesco Toldo.
Brilliant and gifted Batistuta pulled on the purple shirt whilst still in his prolific pomp, starring as Fiorentina’s most ferocious forward for almost a decade, notching a tremendous 21 times over 28 league games in his penultimate campaign with the club in 1999.
Almost the catalyst to hand the club silverware success, injury to the Argentine is widely blamed for the Viola ultimately coming up short, yet it was perhaps an over-reliance on ‘Batigol’ that was the real culprit.
Scouring this Tuscan teamsheet today and there is clearly no player of Batistuta’s calibre, though this arguably works in smart Sousa’s favour.
Four from six in Serie A, including a clinical hat-trick against Inter, shows summer striker signing Nikola Kalinic’s face fits far better in Florence than it did in England with former club Blackburn Rovers.
Crafty and cool Kalinic’s arrival gives Viola attacking depth their previous title tilt did not possess, with previous top poacher Khouma Babacar bravely benched alongside most technically talented attacker Giuseppe Rossi for the Inter victory.
Another Eastern European outlet in Josip Ilicic has also proven pivotal from the wing, with those wide positions crucial to Sousa’s ever-evolving 3-4-2-1 system.
Portugal playmaker Costa was formerly the brains behind Fiorentina’s creativity, but the team of today relies on genuine width through Ilicic and Jakub Blaszczykowski, as have nobody in current ranks to match their previous iconic number 10.
Instead, the likes of Borja Valero and Milan Badelj provide a mixture of grit and guile from the middle of the park, giving a stronger base for potential success.
Defensive shortcomings were also roundly given as reason for Giovanni Trapattoni’s team’s capitulation in 1999, with 10 more conceded than eventual second spot Lazio, despite big names such as Toldo and tenacious full back Moreno Torricelli in the ranks.
Sousa, now showing signs of being a much savvier tactician than in his unsuccessful days in England, may never match the title haul of a Trapattoni, but he does have his modern-day Fiorentina (13/8 to win Europa League Group I) tight at the back and much more finely tuned.
Joint-first with just four conceded in the league sees Viola top Serie A on goal difference showing that, despite the lack of individual brilliance compared to their table-topping predecessors, team work and spirit of players such as Marcos Alonso and Davide Astori could see this Fiorentina team posses the stamina for a longer Scudetto challenge.