Fiorentina coach Stefano Pioli took a break from preparing a game plan for Juventus’ visit to Tuscany on Friday in order to visit the Uffizi gallery. After all, it’s hard to live in Florence and not be inspired by the city’s rich art history.
Take the club’s sporting director, Pantaleo Corvino, whose proudest possession, a Valerio Adami painting, cost a small fortune. Quite the collector when he isn’t wheeling and dealing footballers, Corvino recently gave an interview to La Gazzetta dello Sport in which, when asked to muse on the the signings he’s most proud of, he compared the the likes of Stevan Jovetic, Graziano Pelle, and Mirko Vucinic to modern art movements like Minimalism and Arte Povera. The irony wasn’t lost on the crowd at the Artemio Franchi, who are not as hushed at voicing their critique as the ones Pioli mixed with on Wednesday in silent contemplation of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
They will have smiled, however, upon reading what work of art springs to mind when Giovanni Simeone thinks about Friday night with the Old Lady. “A painting depicting the Battle of Waterloo,” he said.
Them’s fighting words from “Cholito,” who evidently sees Pioli as the second coming of the Duke of Wellington. Bold too, when you consider the form Juventus are in as they decamp for the banks of the Arno. The Bianconeri are unbeaten since mid-November. They obliterated Sassuolo 7-0 at the weekend and have conceded just one goal in 15 games. But Simeone isn’t intimidated. He played the best game of his career against Juventus, putting two goals past Gianluigi Buffon in a 3-2 win for former club Genoa last season. Guess what he’s spent the week doing? Watching old clips of fellow Argentine, Gabriel Batistuta.
The atmosphere at the Franchi promises to be hostile on Friday night. It’s just a shame that the ultras’ conflict with the local authority and Fiorentina’s owners, the Della Valle brothers, has led them to take the “painful decision” of abstaining from organising a special choreography in protest.
One Juventus player probably relieved about that, although still steeling himself against the whistles he’ll receive every time he touches the ball, is Federico Bernardeschi, the Carrara-born playmaker who left the club he joined as a boy to move to Turin in the summer. “Questione di Fede” is how La Gazzetta dello Sport set the game up in its Thursday edition, a play on the Italian word for faith and the contrasting choices made by Bernardeschi and fellow academy graduate Federico Chiesa in the summer; the latter signed a new long-term contract with La Viola after a breakthrough season last term.
Bernardeschi’s decision to give into the Old Lady’s overtures instead of staying and becoming the next great Fiorentina No.10, a Giancarlo Antognoni for the new generation, bitterly disappointed the fans while simultaneously reopening old wounds. The saltiest, of course, is Roberto Baggio’s riot-causing (though reluctant) switch to Juventus in 1990. Who knows if Bernardeschi will pick up a purple scarf and clutch it as adoringly as Baggio did if one is thrown his way this Friday night.
Friday’s match will be an “insidious” one for Juventus, says Max Allegri. There are better ways to prepare for the first leg of their Champions League tie with Tottenham than going to the city in Italy where the hate for the Old Lady is so vociferous. Juventus lost here a year ago, which in retrospect proved to be the turning point in their season. But with the margin of error in the title race so much finer than it was then, a repeat of that defeat is simply out of the question.
Simeone has made it clear that Juventus can expect a battle and for now, the club and its fans alike are welcoming the prospect of fighting one that isn’t between themselves. The Della Valle brothers are not anticipated to be at the Franchi on Friday night. They haven’t attended a game in some time, fed up with the insults hurled their way from the Curva Fiesole. The ultras have questioned their motives for years now, riling against a perceived lack of ambition by a ownership duo who, to their credit, take fiscal responsibility more seriously than their predecessors.
Of irritation to the Della Valles is the fact that Pioli’s predecessor as manager, Paulo Sousa, did nothing to discourage the grievances held by the fans. He had the team improbably challenging for the title two years ago. So convinced was Sousa that he could deliver Florence its first Scudetto since 1966 that he asked the Della Valle brothers to go that extra mile in the January transfer window. But they refused and Fiorentina fell away, finishing fifth.
Sousa made no secret of his disillusion with it all. Reflecting on Bernardeschi’s future at the beginning of last season, the former Juventus midfielder was too honest for the club’s liking, sparking outrage by saying that a player of his talent simply has to play for a team with bigger aspirations.
Other Fiorentina stars began to feel the same way about their own careers, particularly when they learned the club had been listening to offers for them. So while Milan bought an entire new team in the summer, Fiorentina sold one as Bernardeschi wasn’t alone in leaving. Captain Borja Valero bid a tearful farewell and joined Inter. Matias Vecino followed. Top scorer Nikola Kalinic eventually realised his dream to play for Milan and the exodus continued in January with Khouma Babacar — the Viola‘s next big thing, once upon a time — preferring Sassuolo to the Premier League in the biggest sale of the window between Serie A clubs.
As the club’s highest earner until Chiesa’s new deal, the Babacar deal felt pretty symbolic. The luxury he represented as a handsomely remunerated back-up striker no longer corresponds with the reality of a much leaner club. Corvino has slashed the payroll to €38 million, explaining the cut-backs as follows: “A club that makes €85m [a year] can’t pay €70m in wages.” In the red when he arrived, Fiorentina are now back in the black and the new team Corvino has assembled is undoubtedly talented.
Fiorentina boast Serie A’s third youngest side and has a lot of upside. Simeone and Chiesa are chips off the old block, while Jordan Veretout is now starting to fulfil the potential he showed beside Paul Pogba and Geoffrey Kondogbia in the France side that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2013. We’ve seen flashes of what this team promises to become, flickers here and there. But the ups and downs Fiorentina have experienced shouldn’t come as too much as a surprise from a team this green around the ears. Pioli warned this was going to be a transition year and so it is. Fiorentina alternate one good month with another less good month and last weekend’s win in the Appenine derby was sorely needed after the back-to-back defeats to Sampdoria and Hellas Verona.
The humiliation caused by the latter result, a 4-1 defeat in front of their own fans to a side likely to go down this season, led 3000 angry Florentines to demand an audience with the directors. A delegation of ultras then visited the training ground the day before the trip to Bologna to remind the players of the standards expected of them. Eleventh place isn’t good enough for a club of their history and tradition and as the Florence edition of La Repubblica noted, fans are having a hard time coming to terms with Fiorentina’s new economic reality.
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the Della Valle brothers. Expensive gambles on Mario Gomez and Giuseppe Rossi did not pay off, while the three fourth-place finishes achieved with Vincenzo Montella came at a time when Serie A only had three Champions League slots. Revenue from that competition could have been transformational.
Friday’s game offers a chance to brighten the mood around the place but in order to mastermind a win against the old enemy, Pioli will need to produce a masterpiece of the sort the Uffizi proudly exhibits.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.