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Know your enemy: Rival Q&A with Viola Nation

With Juventus set to face Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia on Wednesday night, we decided to get a bonus round of chatting with our favorite purple-clad friend of the blog.

ACF Fiorentina v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Juventua and Fiorentina open up their Coppa Italia semifinal with the first 90 minutes of play in Florence on Wednesday night. It is the kind of matchup, especially at this stage of the competition, that always brings out some fireworks, but then you throw in what went down between the two clubs in the final week of January.

It’s the easy thing to center Juventus’ trip to the Franchi around Dusan Vlahovic, and plenty already have.

But no matter what happened during the January transfer window, Juventus facing Fiorentina is always going to be an intense affair — especially with a chance to get to the Coppa Italia final at stake.

Because it is what we are want to do whenever Juventus faces Fiorentina in any domestic competition, we got in contact with our favorite Viola-loving friend of the blog, Tito from Viola Nation, SB Nation’s home for all things Fiorentina. While we don’t get to hear the sultry dulcitones of Tito as compared to when he’s stopped by the podcast, we were able to chat about the state of Fiorentina and the dude who just jumped from one half of this Coppa Italia semifinal to the other.

What did Tito have to say? Well, let’s get right to it.

BWRAO: You waited to talk about Dusan Vlahovic in the other end of the Q&A, but I want to get it right out of the way. Fiorentina has obviously brought in a few strikers to try and fill the void, but how has that gone? Has Fiorentina’s attack been able to keep the same kind of play going even with a new focal point in there?

VN: Yeah, I was going to see if I could avoid adding to The Discourse™, but there’s really no escaping it, is there? Anyways, it’s pretty tough to replace a guy with Dušan’s pure quality, especially in January, but Fiorentina did an okay job. Krzysztof Piątek has scored five goals in seven games since arriving and looks, at worst, quite functional. While he’s never going to reach the heights that Pum Pum Mania might’ve mistakenly foreshadowed, he knows where to be, works hard without the ball, and helps the team; to put it in Juve terms, he’s got a bit of Mario Mandžukić in him in that, while he’s not the most natural finisher and may not contribute too much to the buildup, he’s always a threat.

The wildcard is Arthur Cabral, who scored 38 goals in the past 2 years at Basel. He’s a very different kind of player, less of a target man and more of a mobile forward who drops off, combines with teammates, and works the channels. He scored his first goal for the Viola against Sassuolo and looks like he could be a good one, but might need a bit of time. He also runs like a cartoon character, which is very fun. So yeah, Italiano’s got some functional options up front, but since they’re not nearly the goalscorers Vlahović is, he’s definitely looking for a bit more from the rest of his players.

BWRAO: Do you feel like it’s almost fitting that Fiorentina make a deep run in the Coppa Italia and then all that stands in between themselves and their first final appearance in almost a decade is their former star striker that left the club all of a month ago?

VN: No. I don’t. I don’t like it at all. In fact, I hate it. Next question.

As a fan and a writer, I hate games like this, if I’m being honest. No matter what happens, the narrative is already set in stone. If Fiorentina wins, it’s because they wanted to prove something to Vlahović. If Juventus win, it’s because Vlahović wanted to show them that he’s outgrown them. These kinds of narratives completely ignore all the work that the players and coaches put into preparing for games; reducing all that effort and artifice to a one-liner irritates me to no end. And yes, I do have a degree in literature. What made you ask?

As far as Vlahović goes, I think he’s going to be a superb player for a very long time. He’s got all the physical and mental attributes you could ask for. I don’t think there are a lot of Viola fans who expected him to be the next bandiera, largely because those players don’t exist anymore. Indeed, most fans are irked at the club’s brain trust for not renewing his contract last year because it would’ve squeezed some more cash from his sale, rather than because it would have tied him to Florence for another 5 years. We’re mostly realists.

From what I’ve gathered from folks around the club, he didn’t really care one way or the other about moving on; his agent Darko Ristić really pushed the move. I’m not naive enough to think that calcio has always been all about honor and honesty, but this kind of stuff doesn’t go down too well for me. I guess the tl;dr is that I dislike Vlahović as an encapsulation of what’s wrong with the game more than as a person or a player.

BWRAO: The weekend’s result was not good, so how would you describe Fiorentina’s form the last month or two?

VN: Yeah, losing to Sassuolo that way was definitely a punch in the crotch, but it wasn’t unexpected. The Neroverdi have been a bugbear for Fiorentina over the past few years and Italiano sent out an XI that was mostly backups. Getting scored on by Hamed Junior Traoré, who was as close to being a Viola player as one can get, stings. The refereeing stung worse (nobody is going to buy Alessandro Prontera a bistecca any time soon). But, as a Fiorentina fan, it’s probably not even in the top five most frustrating losses this year, which makes me sound like a real masochist.

Over the past couple of months, it’s been pretty uneven. You’ve got a 4-0 at Torino, a 0-3 to Lazio, and a 1-1 at Cagliari that were pretty awful. On the other hand, a 2-5 win over Napoli, a 6-0 (!) over Genoa, and a pair of wins over Atalanta show that this team can cook a little bit. I hate to parrot the soundbites, but it’s really a matter of consistency for this team. At their best, they play some scintillating stuff and you get the sense they could beat anyone. At their worst, you get the sense that anyone could beat them. Italiano’s a young coach and still figuring it out, and this squad’s still trying to shake the ghosts of BeppeBall past. It’s a process and it’s moving in the right direction, despite the occasional hiccup.

BWRAO: What should Max Allegri’s biggest worry be when it comes to trying to stop Fiorentina?

VN: This may shock you and your readers, but I’d be concerned about Juve’s midfield. Fiorentina press like maniacs and are likely to outnumber the Bianconeri in the middle of the park, so they’re going to go hell for leather and try to cut the supply to the strikers at its source rather than sit deep and try to break. The Viola have excelled at winning the ball high up and throwing numbers forward; the problem is that they definitely leave themselves open, although that’s clearly part of the plan.

As far as individuals go, Nicolás González might be Serie A’s best dribbler. He wins more fouls per 90 than anyone in the league because the only way to stop him is to kick the bejeezus out of his legs. Expect to see a lot of him. And, if I’m totally honest, expect to really dislike him, because he’s the sort of player that you love if you have him and hate if you don’t. There’s maybe a bit of Juan Cuadrado in him with his pace and dribbling, but Nico, I think, is going to be better.

Also (and I hate to say this about your bulging adult son) Matthijs de Ligt feels like he’s always got a wild error in him. I know we talked about this offline — sorry to pull back the curtain — but I feel like every time I watch him, he hits the ball with his hand or crashes through someone’s back in the box. He’s a fantastic talent and I always forget that he’s young and is still improving, and I also know that Juve have literally no other options in defense, but were I Max Allegri, I’d be deeply anxious about Fiorentina catching Juve on the ball and feeding Nico to run at de Ligt in space. I know, I know. I’m really sorry to say mean things about your absolutely enormous child.

BWRAO: You asked me for a prediction, so I will ask you for one as well. How do you think things will look heading into the second leg in Turin?

VN: I think it’s going to be a pretty low-scoring affair, given Allegri’s love of grinding out results and Fiorentina’s slightly suspect finishing; they’ve outperformed their xG — yeah, I know, nerd stuff — just twice since Vlahović left, and it feels like they always leave at least one goal out there. I’ll call it at 1-1 in a game that’s more tense and interesting than exciting. Goals from Nico Gonzalez and Álvaro Morata, and a very warm welcome indeed for a certain unnamed Serbian striker and his buddies. The Curva Fiesole’s going to be sold out and the city’s gearing up for quite the evening. Should be a lot of fun.