Conspiracy theorists have been busying themselves this week with the notion that some sort of skulduggery was behind Fiorentina’s failure to finish in third place and secure a lucrative return to the Champions League.
True, a highly contentious penalty awarded to AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli with ten minutes of the season remaining may have ultimately proven crucial in consigning the Viola to fourth place and a spot in the Europa League, but to focus entirely on that fact is to do a huge disservice to the progress made both on and off the pitch during the last 12 months.
A year ago, the club had been forced to sack coach Delio Rossi following a disgraceful pitch-side assault on forward Adem Ljajic, while relegation was only averted on the penultimate weekend of the campaign. It was clear that changes were needed in order to pull back from the abyss, but few could have predicted quite how dramatically the club’s fortunes would alter during the course of the 2012/13 campaign.
The winds of change became apparent with the hiring of new sporting director Daniele Prade, who set about overhauling an aging and undisciplined squad in time for the arrival of new coach Vincenzo Montella, who had impressed during a season spent guiding Catania to the brink of European qualification.
Club captain Riccardo Montolivo left to join AC Milan, while the underperforming likes of Alessio Cerci, Juan Manuel Vargas, Artur Boruc, Valon Behrami and Amauri followed him through the exit door. In their place arrived a raft of highly talented, experienced campaigners.
Palermo’s Emiliano Viviano arrived on loan to fill the vacant goalkeeper’s position, with the backline bolstered by Boca Juniors Facundo Roncaglia and Villarreal’s Gonzalo Rodriguez. The loss of Matija Nastasic to Manchester City was a blow, but the arrival of makeweight Stefan Savic would prove a shrewd piece of business.
It was in midfield where the biggest overhaul was made. David Pizarro, Borja Valero and Alberto Aquilani were acquired for a combined outlay of €16million, and were joined by Udinese loanee Juan Cuadrado. Up front, the failure to capture the signature of Dimitar Berbatov was tempered slightly by the return of club legend Luca Toni.
Old habits die hard however, and though the season started with positive home wins over Udinese and Catania, an over reliance on the goals of Stevan Jovetic and poor form away from home looked like once again undermining the club’s league position.
A goalless draw with reigning champions Juventus in week five hinted at the side’s greater potential though, with Montella’s favoured 3-5-2 formation giving the side both defensive resilience and dominance in midfield, where Pizarro, Valero and Aquilani were starting to combine to great effect.
A 2-0 win over Lazio in week seven was the first of six straight wins, as a free-scoring Viola brushed aside opponents with ease and began a rapid ascent of the table. Though a worrying defensive frailty started to creep in during the autumn, a 4-1 derby win over Siena and a 3-0 rout of Palermo prior to the winter break left the club third in the table.
However, a shock 2-0 home defeat to Pescara set the side on a dismal run of five defeats in eight league matches, while defeat to Roma in the Coppa Italia quarter final ended any hopes of ending the season with silverware. The slump prompted Montella to move Manuel Pasqual from left wing to left back in an attempt to tighten up the defence, and the first match under the new 4-3-3 formation brought with it one of the most impressive performances of the season, with Inter being played off the park in a 4-1 home win.
With spring approaching, the Viola rediscovered the consistency that had deserted them with an impressive nine wins from the last 12 games of the season. Highlights included thrilling 3-2 and 4-3 home wins over Genoa and Torino respectively, while recovering from two goals down to salvage a 2-2 draw against Milan maintained the club’s Champions League aspirations.
Those hopes were dealt a near fatal blow on the first weekend of May with a desperately disappointing last-gasp defeat to Roma in a game the Viola had completely dominated, and though Montella’s side saw out the season with three straight victories, Milan’s late turnaround against Siena saw them miss out on the top three.
The finale may have left a bitter taste in the mouth, but Fiorentina’s failure to qualify for the Champions League has more to do with Italy’s dwindling UEFA coefficient ranking than whether or not Balotelli went to ground softly against Siena, and there should be absolutely no doubt that this season was a resounding success for Montella and his Viola side.
A highest finish in five years and a return to the European stage was secured with a brand of football that was at times a joy to watch, but perhaps more crucially, the club rediscovered a sense of dignity both on and off the field that at one stage last year looked to have deserted them for good.
Player of the Season
Naturally there were several candidates for player of the season. Stevan Jovetic once again finished as top scorer, Adem Ljajic revitalised his career with a string of fine displays, and the likes of Borja Valero, Juan Cuadrado and Alberto Aquilani made the Viola one of the most dynamic and exciting sides to watch throughout European football.
However, a special mention must go to David Pizarro, the 33-year-old signed on a free transfer from Roma during the summer. Other players may have provided the flair, but Pizarro’s unhurried presence provided the central pivot on which the entire team’s success was often based. With a range of passing and vision that was consistently second to none, the only disappointing thing about Pizarro is that he is not ten years younger.
Goal of the Season
With a staggering 72 to pick from, any number of goals could have walked away with this accolade. A personal favourite however was Juan Cuadrado’s opener in the 4-3 home win over Torino in April.
Gathering possession on the left, Ljajic cut inside before switching the play across field to Cuadrado. The Colombian then took out Torino defender Mario Alberto Santana with a trademark shimmy, before spotting a gap and lifting an impudent chip that a back peddling Jean Francois Gillet could only help on its way into the net. A perfect example of how devastatingly simple the Viola made the art of goal scoring look on many an occasion this season.
Best and Worst Signings
With so many new signings performing so well throughout the campaign, it seems an unfair and almost futile exercise to single out just one individual. The midfield stalwarts of Cuadrado, Valero, Aquilani and Pizarro were outstanding, while Stefan Savic’s burgeoning talent came to the fore during the latter stages of the season, and Luca Toni excelled all expectations of what he could still bring to the table.
Likewise, to bestow anybody with the dubious honour of ‘worst signing’ seems entirely unjustified given that nobody disgraced themselves. That said, as phenomenal a talent as a fully fit Giuseppe Rossi can be, one cannot help but wonder whether the money spent acquiring his signature could have been better spent on a striker fit enough to fire Fiorentina towards the Champions League during this campaign. Mounir El Hamdaoui meanwhile showed glimpses of his obvious talent, but was unable to convince Montella that he was worthy of a regular starting place.
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