Fiorentina and Milan are coming off healthy wins, but their upcoming continental fixtures and the possible rotation loom large over this encounter.
Serie A Week 25 – Saturday 26 February 2023 – Stadio Artemio Franchi | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Fiorentina finally had a good win in Serie A too, as their recent strong performances were all in the cups, and they hadn’t prevailed in six weeks domestically, even though the schedule was pretty challenging. They are in no man’s land in the standings, so that may be a recurring theme for the rest of the season. It’s too late for them to stage a comeback toward the positions that really matter. Coppa Italia will be their main objective since they will face Cremonese in the semifinals. But they can go far in European Conference League too, as they are already putting the right amount of effort into it.
While it didn’t necessarily lead to great results, they have been performing better as of late, which was primarily the product of all their players being healthy. Nicolas Gonzalez is the stick that stirs the pot, and their offense makes sense when he’s the one running it. Their other attackers are complementary pieces. Defenders focus a lot on him, which has benefitted especially Riccardo Saponara and their two strikers, who have both suddenly started scoring consistently.
The remaining fixtures will be valuable to evaluate whether to move forward with both Arthur Cabral and Luka Jovic, just one of them, or neither. The former has higher upside and contributes more in other areas even when he’s in a slump, while the ex-Real Madrid man is potentially more prolific, but only when he’s in perfect shape and in the right headspace. The Brazilian might be more lenient about not being the top dog.
Antonin Barak also broke out of his dry spell against Hellas Verona, and his transition to a new team and scheme has been more arduous than expected. Vincenzo Italiano has gone back to his beloved 4-3-3 after a foray into 4-2-3-1 that showed promise, but coaches tend to rely on what they are most comfortable with at the first sign of trouble. The busy schedule has given him an excuse to bench him or Giacomo Bonaventura. The pairing with the Czech didn’t really pan out. Rolando Mandragora coming back from injury solidified the midfield and allowed the other box-to-box to attack more. Gaetano Castrovilli is also healthy, and once he’s ready for big minutes, they’ll try to make it work with two proactive men since he has a higher work rate than their other two technical options.
Dodo is hitting his stride too, and their investment is finally starting to pay off. Alvaro Odriozola was a big factor in that role last season, but the ex-Shakter Donetsk fullback required a lot of time to get settled. He’s now providing the right punch, which makes their formation less lopsided. In general, they should stop signing middle-aged players and go after true prospects with a lot of potential, so the squad could progressively grow over the years, but that’s neither here nor there. Aleksa Terzic was also coming on strong, but he just picked up a thigh strain.
It will be a weird clash because both sides wouldn’t want to drop points, even more so the Viola that have been starving for consistency. However, they are also more interested in the continental matches that will take place midweek. Once Fiorentina welcomed back their top star, it became apparent that they do have a robust amount of quality and a ton of options to mix it up offensively, but they needed a leader that could hold things together and make the pieces fit. If everybody is available, they don’t have many issues handling fixtures with short turnarounds. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have one for their most important player, and that proved costly in the first half of the season.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Terracciano; Dodo, Milenkovic, Igor, Biraghi; Barak, Amrabat, Mandragora; Gonzalez, Cabral, Saponara.
Doubts: Dodo/Venuti, Milenkovic/Martinez Quarta, Saponara/Ikoné.
Injury Report: Terzic (thigh strain).
Milan snapped out of their skid with a few tight victories, but they were truly back only in the Atalanta clash, where they not only claimed all the three points, but they did it convincingly against a worthy opponent that they completely outplayed. Letting them pull the strings, as they were content doing in previous matches, would have been too risky. While La Dea has its own issue to deal with, the Rossoneri controlled the ball and dictated the rhythm for the first time since switching to a three-man defense.
The key win built up a lot of equity and dinged a direct adversary in the Champions League race, so they will be able to tackle the upcoming challenges with a brighter outlook. The previous slump derailed them, but it’d be stunning if they and Inter dropped out of the top four. Their squads are clearly superior to the other contenders, and they have a significantly better resumes.
Next week’s return leg against Tottenham will have a big influence on this match, and a pair of suspensions further add to the coach’s lineup conundrums. Rafael Leao hasn’t been great lately, but he’s still the one guy the offense gravitates toward the most. They have other attackers that can fill in, but nobody with the same gravitas and talent. Ante Rebic generally serves as his backup but hasn’t done anything in months.
Brahim Diaz is out too with a knee sprain, and that takes away the possibility of using two no.10s together, which might have offset the absence of the Portuguese star. A lot will fall on Charles De Ketelaere given the circumstances. His struggles are well-documented at this point, but he has looked a little better in recent showings, even though he missed some bunnies. A viable alternative could be deploying Junior Messias in a supporting role, as he’s comfortable all over the pitch and was the primary source of chances in his Crotone days. He’s also their most in-form contributor. They have another dependable starter on the right wing, Alexis Saelemaekers, and Davide Calabria will be back from injury.
It’s more farfetched, but Stefano Pioli could also go in a new direction altogether and field a pure 3-5-2 or start two center-forwards together, exploiting the fact that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is now available too. The first one would help the midfield, which won’t have Rade Krunic, their most trusted deputy for Ismael Bennacer. The starter has healed up, and they’ll have to decide whether it’s better for him to play a solid hour to round back into shape or if they should err on the side of caution and have him fresh for the London trip. Tommaso Pobega and Aster Vranckx, who have gotten very few opportunities, are more natural box-to-box, and fielding them together would also aid Sandro Tonali, although they would lack creativity that way. It ultimately hinges on whomever the gaffer wants to load manage, and Olivie Giroud is one of the main candidates.
Mike Maignan plucked grass in his first game, but his return is a massive boost for the whole defense, which had already begun turning the corner with the new system. Pierre Kalulu, Malick Thiaw, and Fikayo Tomori are well-assorted and form a potentially formidable trio. The most tired one might make way to Simon Kjaer in this one.
Managers sometimes like to stick to their guns after they find a solution to their woes, but they shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Their lead over the fifth-placed Roma is small, but there will be time to make up for a stumble caused by a reserve-filled XI. Instead, there will be no retry of the Spurs bout. They matched up with them quite well a few weeks ago, and making it to the Champions League’s Round of Eight would be a big feather in their cap.
Expected XI (3-4-2-1): Maignan; Kalulu, Thiaw, Tomori; Saelemaekers, Tonali, Bennacer, Hernandez; De Ketelaere, Rebic; Giroud.
Doubts: Saelemaekers/Messias, Bennacer/Pobega, Giroud/Origi.
Leao, Krunic (suspension) – OUT; Diaz (knee sprain) – OUT; Bennacer (thigh strain), Calabria (hip strain), Florenzi (thigh tendon tear) – probable.
Milan Win – Under 2.5 Goals