At the Stadio Artemio Franchi on Monday evening, Fiorentina play host to Napoli in a game which will have a huge impact on the race for the Scudetto and the Champions League places.
After a disastrous week for both sides, during which they were eliminated from the Europa League, the second and third placed sides both need a victory to keep alive their faltering seasons. After Juventus beat Inter on Sunday evening, Napoli find themselves 4 points behind the Bianconeri in the Scudetto race with only nine games left. Whilst the deficit is not insurmountable, Juve’s form is such that they do not currently look like they will lose two games before the end of the season.
Fiorentina on the other hand find themselves usurped for the third Champions League spot after their Tuscan neighbours, Empoli, were defeated by Roma. The win sees Roma move above Fiorentina by one point, and the side from the capital will be in the ascendancy given their great form since the appointment of Luciano Spalletti as coach. On top of that, Fiorentina travel to the Olimpico to face Roma on Friday evening, and La Viola can not afford to lose either of these two games.
The inevitable focus ahead of this fixture will be on Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain who, despite 24 league goals so far this season, has failed to score in his last 4 Serie A and Europa League games. Whilst one suspects that the victor of his match-up with Gonzalo Rodriguez and Davide Astori will ultimately decide which team prevails, one should not discount the impact that Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon will have on this fixture.
Both Insigne and Callejon are in excellent form, and the calls for Insigne to get a starting berth in Antonio Conte’s team in Euro 2016 grow ever louder by the week. Callejon has excelled, albeit somewhat under the radar, weighing in with key goals and assists coming in from that right hand side.
Both Insigne and Callejon will look to exploit the space that the Fiorentina three-man defence allows out wide, particularly the weakness in the Fiorentina right centre-back position due to the inconsistency of Facundo Roncaglia and Nenad Tomovic. Insigne and Callejon will look to drag the outside centre-halves out to the flank, trying to create more space for Marek Hamsik to get forward to support Higuain.
Alternatively, Callejon and Insigne will try to force the Fiorentina wing-backs, Marcos Alonso and Federico Bernardeschi, into a more defensive mode thus negating much of the Fiorentina attacking threat down the flanks. With that in mind, one would not be surprised if Fiorentina coach, Paulo Sousa, decides to go with a back four, with two holding midfielders offering protection in front of them.
Fiorentina themselves will be hoping that Nikola Kalinic finds the form that shot Fiorentina to the top of Serie A in the first half of the season. His form in the second half of the season has been poor, although the service to him in recent games has been indifferent as teams have sought to stifle the supply to him.
Fiorentina’s key men will likely be Borja Valero, who continues to pull the strings in midfield despite being in dire need of a rest, and Josep Ilicic, who has taken over the goal-scoring mantle from Kalinic in the past month. Ilicic has however been inconsistent within games, only shining for 30 minutes each match; that in turn has had an impact on the service he has provided to Kalinic. However, Ilicic is only reported to be at half-fitness, and therefore Cristian Tello might come into the team for him.
Fiorentina have only won one of the last 11 Serie A meetings between the sides, with the Viola failing to score in five of those games, and scoring only one in each of the other six. Napoli have won 6 of those matches and there has been 4 draws. However, Fiorentina have a ray of hope as Napoli have not won any of their last four games in all competitions, scoring only two goals in the process.
The sides met earlier this season, when Napoli ran out 2-1 winners thanks to goals from Insigne and Higuain, with a Kalinic goal sandwiched in between. However, Fiorentina’s league home record has been excellent – collecting 31 points out of a possible 39 at the Franchi; meanwhile, Napoli have a reasonable away record, with only 3 defeats in their 13 away fixtures.
One would expect both starting line-ups to be at full strength, and neither Maurizio Sarri or Paulo Sousa will now seek to rest players as they look to rescue the seasons of their respective teams. Fiorentina have a full squad available, save for the suspended Mauro Zarate and the injured Yohan Benalouane. The only likely selection issues for Sousa will be whether to risk the fitness of Ilicic, and whether to give Milan Badelj a stating berth alongside Matias Vecino, thus allowing Valero to push further forward.
Napoli have a full strength squad available, and Sarri is likely to select his strongest team in an attempt to get the Partenopei’s Scudetto challenge back on track.
Whoever runs out the winner on Monday, might just have saved their season from them imploding. For the loser, ignominy beckons after a wonderful first half of the season.