Nine preseason wins were surrounded by a loss at Azteca to Club America to serve as a reminder why Americans should never appear in the stadium. House. Of. Horrors. Still, with comfortable wins over Anderlecht, Standard Liege, and Austria Wien thrown into my usual cupcake battering, there was no reason to lack for confidence.
The Italian SuperCoppa pitted us against US Sassulo at the San Siro. Their formation appeared more aggressive than in the past. Which only served to ensure we dominated the match. Donny van de Beek got his first career goal off a well-worked passing move. Mati Fernandez came off the bench to deliver a precise free kick that Marlon towered to send home in the 78th minute. Sassulo’s fans followed in short order, as Max Furey received his first Domestic Cup win as Fiorentina manager.
The Fixture List served up the most important rivalry in Italy for opening day. Fiorentina vs Juventus, at Artemio Franchi. Unai Emery brought in Renato Sanches and Heinrikh Mkhitarian to bolster his side. But they played passive through the 1st half, and we really should have gone in with a lead. We came out with similar dominance, and Borja Valero scored his 1st–and only–goal of the season in the 52nd minute, passed into space by a header from Van de Beek to unleash a volley that left Buffon motionless. But as the fans sang, and victory looked assured, Dybala somehow got free of Astori and Marlon, and fired home an 82nd minute, undeserved equalizer. So it ended 1-1.
Goals would flow with much less regularity than last season. 13 League games would pass before we scored 3 in a game, against Carpi at home. 6 before we scored 2, against US Sassulo. The culprit in our profligacy was clear: Andrea Belotti. If last year I was troubled by his inconsistency, this year he simply stunk to High Heaven. His return of 10 goals was half last season’s. And once again, the bigger the opponent, the more invisible he became. He scored against Napoli in our 3rd game and still managed a 6.9 overall rating. Then he didn’t score again in the league until Genoa, almost 2 months later. He did manage a penalty kick in our 2-0 Champion’s League victory over Barca, however. A well deserved victory that put us in control of a tough group including Beskitas and Shaktar.
The match against Barca proved one that made Ricardo’s eyes light up in Euro Signs as well:
So if our goalscoring had dried up, we returned to the DNA of our first season. High possession and press to strangle the game, and a stout defense. Timo Horn played his part, and the Brazilian defenders Samir and Marlon strengthened the backline.
Lazio was playing prettier football. But we were, in effect, the classic Serie A side: Controlling games, dictating terms, scoring when we needed to, and never giving up cheap goals.
So it should come as no surprise that we had to play Lazio immediately after our home win against Barcelona, with top of the table up for grabs. To their credit, the Rome side came to Artemio Franchi to play football, and while both defenses played well, it was not for a lack of testing. In general, Mati Fernandez, Levin Oztunali, and Milan Badelj dictate the midfield, but Lazio’s front-line threatens on counters. The difference in the match was our goalkeepers, Timo Horn came up with 2 good saves, while Frederico Marchetti spilled a Levin Oztunali shot into the path of Christian Tello in the 52nd minute. Our leading goalscorer made no mistake. 1-0, top of the league.
Barca returned the favor on us in the Champion’s League, winning 2-0 in Camp Nou, leaving the group poised on a knife’s edge. We traveled to Istanbul to play a Beskitas side we had crushed 3-0 in the home side. But they scored an early goal. Levin Oztunali equalized off a Tello corner in the 70th minute. Then Belotti emerged from his slumber to finish a Reidewald cross in the 88th. Only for Karim Frei to steal victory in injury time with his 2nd goal. The 2-2 draw left us needing a win against Shakhtar in the final match. Fortunately, they had no intention of doing anything but defending. Marlon scoring off a free kick was enough to see us through to the Knockout round as top of the group.
The young Dutch defender had turned into a star for us at both the club and international level:
With of course, the applicable international interest. We had already beaten off the host of typically derisory bids the AI sends in. I laugh when people talk about ‘the insane money the AI spends.’ Because honestly, 4 out of every 5 bids I get is non-negotiable and less than the player’s value unless he plays 50 games, becomes an international star, blah, blah. So far, he’s not been speaking up. But I suspect it’s only a matter of time, as he is ‘flattered by the interest.’
My other former-Ajax regular, Donny van de Beek, comes to me for a new contract after I reject an almost-fair offer from Arsenal. I promise him he’ll get one after the season. He accept that and gets about his business.
In an attempt to shake up the side, and our profligate strikers, I adjust our tactics, setting them to Target Man from Complete Forward, and instructing our backs to get the ball to them specifically. Against AC Milan. Bonnazoli does this well. The promising ex-Sampdoria striker had struggled much of the early season with injuries. But he scored a nice goal and generally made a nuisance of himself as we dominated the moneyed side in a 2-0 win. Belotti scores two goals in the new role against Carpi, and I allow myself to believe maybe I’ve shaken the slump. Also encouraging is that when Maxwel Cornet comes in for them, the shift to a False 9 throws off defenses used to the battering up top from the strikers.
Unfortunately, in the Dell’Appennino Derby against Bologna, reality returns. Tello and Belotti both play horribly. Their inability to finish thrown into stark relief by Destro taking the one SHOT they have to that point to equalize. All that keeps Max from full rage is an own goal from Dirar in the 77th minute. Still, after the match, he calls Belotti in and issues a warning for poor form. One the striker accepts.
Matias Vecino comes to me and inquires after his lack of playing time. To be fair, he’s only just returned from injury. He also has the misfortune of playing behind Levin Oztunali, who is producing games like this one with routine:
However, I do give him the start against Atalanta Bergamo, and he returns my faith with 2 goals, including one moment of perfect beauty. Keeping with the theme, Milan Badelj almost bests him in the first round of the Italian Coppa against Cesana. This year, despite the board giving it low priority, I decide to play much of the 1st team in the Cup, though with Ciprian in goal. I want the Domestic Treble.
Those ambitions will be sorely tested coming out of the Winter Break with away matches at Roma and in the Turin Stadium against Juventus. Still, despite our dodgy striking, we could be doing worse in the League:
And it’s hard to be completely angry with your side when you set a Serie A record for invincibility:
So, with the Viola competing on three fronts, and vultures swirling our squad with the Winter window once more, what will this third season hold in store?