Napoli have a match this weekend with Fiorentina, the big surprise team of Serie A so far this season. They sit atop the league right now, something no one would have guessed two months ago before the season started, and that spot combined with Napoli's hot streak makes this one of the biggest matches of the season so far.
With that in mind, we spoke with Tito Kohout, who writes at sister SB Nation blog Viola Nation, about Fiorentina's season so far and what this match will bring to bear. We'll also have something from Viola Nation's editor-in-chief, Chloe Beresford, before the match, but for now, let's see what this match is going to have in store for us.
The Siren's Song: What are Fiorentina's goals for the season? Do you think this run atop the table will lead to a real scudetto chance?
Viola Nation: Fiorentina's in a funny place (and also at the top of the table, which is OH MY GOD REALLY EXCITING). Everyone was expecting the team to take a step or two back this season following the departure of Vincenzo Montella and a slew of players who'd starred under him. But there hasn't really been that step back, and now the fan base is murmuring about a scudetto run.
Honestly, I think that's pretty premature -- I don't think Fiorentina has the depth to compete on three fronts and challenge for the scudetto, especially given the schedule they've played thus far. I think third place is a good objective, considering the expectations when the season began, and that fourth or fifth would be acceptable for most fans.
TSS: Fiorentina are getting used to life under a new manager. How has that transition been? What does Paulo Sousa do better, worse, or just differently from Vincenzo Montella?
VN: Paulo Sousa has been shockingly excellent. Everyone was pretty hesitant about him at first, given his lack of top-level experience and some of the claims about poor fitness training that had dogged him at previous stops, but he's proven to be a canny and adaptable tactician. He's smart enough to, based on the players he inherited, maintain a more possession-based style of play than he had at any of his other jobs, but that possession seems more purposeful than it did under Montella, and the team is considerably more ruthless in front of goal. He's done a nice job of finding a formation and tactics that fit all his best players, of rotating the squad to keep everyone fresh, and of maintaining continuity. Honestly, he's barely put a foot wrong, although the losses to Torino and Basel put some pressure on him early.
Photo credit: Getty Images
TSS: Just how worried are you about this match? How do you see Napoli as an opponent?
VN: Totally not worried. Nah. Not even a little bit. ... excuse me, I need to pick up these bullets I sweated out and put them in a pile with the rest of them.
We're pretty dang nervous. Most of the Serie A teams Fiorentina has faced have been mid-table or lower, and an inexplicable number of those opponents have committed really dumb fouls that drew (entirely deserved, honestly) red cards. Napoli has a dangerous squad, particularly with the pace and trickery down the wings, and seem to have had Fiorentina's number the past few seasons. Napoli scares me as much as any team in Serie A, excepting maybe Roma. Juventus will probably get it turned around, but losing Vidal and Tevez hurts them a lot, and the Milan clubs still seem diminished.
TSS: Who's been Fiorentina's standout player of the campaign so far? Who's the standout newcomer, and who's been a disappointment?
VN: Fiorentina's best player has been, as usual, Borja Valero. He had a little bit of a down year last season, but is back pulling the strings in opponents' halves and basically controlling games with his passing and movement. Of the new additions, Nicola Kalinic has been a revelation as a pure number nine; his holdup play, astonishing ability to draw fouls -- he's maybe a bit of a diver, but mostly just smart about getting between defenders and the ball -- and poaching instincts have made him a star already.
Matias Vecino has been excellent in central midfield after returning from a year-long loan at Empoli; he's an all-action box-to-box guy who covers a lot of ground, defends well, and is sneaky good in attack. Finally, Davide Astori has replaced Stevan Savic seamlessly, and, given how composed he is on the ball, is a perfect fit for the overall strategy.
Jakub Blaszczykowski has had some nice moments, but hasn't regained his Dortmund form just yet. U21 superstar Federico Bernardeschi, back from a year with Crotone, has similarly shown flashes, but hasn't made the step up to surefire starter yet. The biggest disappointment, though, is Mario Suarez, who's been questionable at best and a liability at worst.
TSS: Which Fiorentina player should Napoli fans worry about in this match?
VN: Given Napoli's occasionally iffy backline, I think that Nikola Kalinic--who may be dinged up after Croatia's Euro qualifiers and unavailable--should be very threatening. His poacher's instincts and ability to draw fouls by getting between defender and ball at the last possible instant have tormented a number of defenders this year.
If he can't go, Josip Ilicic has been banging goals in at an alarming rate, although a number those have been penalties. Also watch out for Marcos Alonso, who's suddenly become a really good left wingback and has scored and assisted more goals already this year than he had in his entire Fiorentina career.
Photo credit: Getty Images
TSS: Which Napoli player do you fear the most right now?
VN: Gonzalo Higuain is terrifying and is probably going to be really unpleasant to deal with. Fiorentina's backline has been pretty dang good, but he might be the best striker in the league right now. Lorenzo Insigne is also an unpleasant proposition with his trickery out wide, and he's probably going to want revenge after last year, what with his knee exploding against Fiorentina and all. Really, any and all of Napoli's wingers seem like they could have excellent games, which I do not like very much.
Insigne up against Facundo Roncaglia is dangerous for several reasons, including that Roncaglia could very easily break him in half and get sent off. Sousa's 3-4-2-1 formation also sometimes gets a bit narrow defensively, which allows opposing fullbacks to motor forward unchecked, which is also a concern. For Fiorentina, I think that the advantage lies in the numbers and quality of players in the middle. That 3-4-2-1, while sometimes weak on the flanks, floods the center with a lot of really technical, creative guys: Valero, Ilicic, Vecino, Badelj, Fernandez, Rossi, and Bernardeschi all spend time in this area, which can overwhelm opponents and open space on the flanks for Kuba and Alonso to charge into.
TSS: What are your predictions for this match?
VN: I think Fiorentina is probably going to dominate possession in this one, and Napoli will mostly sit deep and try to break quickly down the wings. I'm predicting (or maybe just desperately hoping for) a 2-2 draw, with goals from Insigne and Higuain for y'all, and from Kalinic and Gonzalo Rodriguez for us. Definitely expecting a pretty exciting game, with lots of chances and end-to-end action.
Thanks to Tito for answering our questions, and if you want to know what we had to say to him, you can read up over at Viola Nation. You can also follow their site on Twitter, and can expect plenty of healthy banter between our site and theirs on matchday.