Stadio Artemio Franchi, 1st May 2008. Almost 40,000 fans collectively held their breath as Rangers’ striker Nacho Novo stepped up to take his penalty in the semi-final of the UEFA cup. The Spaniard made no mistake, coolly slotting the ball past ‘keeper Sebastian Frey to send his team through to the final against Zenit St. Petersburg in Manchester. The broken hearted Florentine fans had not seen their beloved Viola in a European final since 1990.
Walter Smith’s side triumphed by bringing catenaccio to the Italians, keeping the tie scoreless over 210 minutes of football despite Fiorentina’s domination and a string of missed chances. The Scots had not registered a shot on target until the 77th minute of normal time, and extra time also ended in stalemate. Fate seemed to be against them when Barry Ferguson had the first penalty saved by the excellent Frey. However, when Fabio Liverani had his shot saved and Christian Vieri – at the end of his career – blazed over the bar, the deciding spot kick fell to Novo and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to 2015 and Fiorentina have been drawn against Europa League holders Sevilla in their first European semi-final since that painful exit to Rangers. In footballing terms, seven years is a long time, as Rangers fans know only too well – so what has changed since the Viola’s last run to a European semi-final?
Fiorentina’s qualification for the 2007/08 UEFA Cup was an impressive achievement given the sanctions placed on them in the aftermath of the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. Originally punished with relegation to Serie B for the 2006/07 season, the Viola were reprieved and instead hit with a deduction of 15-points, a sum that had been lowered from 19 on appeal. Despite this, Cesare Prandelli’s men were able to qualify for the UEFA cup with a sixth placed finish, primarily thanks to a prolific campaign from strikers Luca Toni and Adrian Mutu who ended the season with 16 goals each.
Without the deduction, Fiorentina would have finished third and achieved a Champion’s League place, instead however, they entered the UEFA cup at the first round stage, defeating Eredivisie side Groningen on penalties.
If the circumstances around qualifying for Europe had been difficult, it was nothing compared to when Prandelli’s wife Manuela died after a long battle with cancer in November 2007. The club was shaken by her death and the entire team supported their coach by attending her funeral. Just a few days later, they travelled to AEK Athens under the leadership of assistant Gabriele Pin and managed a 1-1 draw. In the next home game in Serie A against Inter, Fiorentina fans led a heartfelt tribute to Prandelli’s wife by throwing hundreds of white roses onto the pitch before observing a minute silence. Back in 2004, Prandelli had quit his post at Roma due to his wife’s health problems, but after her death, he put all his focus onto football and vowed to continue at Fiorentina. A second place group stage finish was achieved despite the circumstances, with draws against Villarreal and AEK Athens, and victories against IF Eisborg and Mlada Bolesaw.
Coincidentally, Fiorentina won their first knockout stage against Rosenborg by the same margin as their victory over two-legs against Tottenham in this year’s competition. The Norwegians were seen off 3-1 on aggregate after Adrian Mutu gave the Italian side a narrow 1-0 advantage away from home, leaving Fabio Liverani and Daniele Cacia to finish the job in Florence, with Rosenborg only able to score a consolation in the 88th minute.
In the last sixteen, Fiorentina found themselves up against a resolute Everton side under the guidance of David Moyes. Both sides won their home legs 2-0, and so it fell to penalties to decide the quarter final place. Fiorentina held their nerve, clinically converting all of their kicks, meanwhile Yakubu hit the post for the Toffees and Phil Jagielka, who took the deciding penalty, was denied by an outstanding Frey save. The saves made by the French goalkeeper – still a favourite among the Viola tifosi – were as valuable to the team’s European success that year as the goals scored by Mutu.
It was down to Mutu, nicknamed Il fenomeno, to come up with the goods in the quarter-finals against PSV Eindhoven. He scored two special goals away from home to send the Florentines into the semi-finals. Although he had troubled times during his career, Mutu was settled and happy during this period and this was reflected on the pitch, finishing the UEFA cup campaign with six goals.
In 2010, after five years at the helm, Prandelli left Fiorentina to manage the national side. At the time of his departure, he was Serie A’s longest serving coach, emphasising Serie A’s high coaching turnover. The Viola’s current tactician, Vincenzo Montella, has been compared to Prandelli in terms of his quiet manner, stylish appearance and relative longevity. But the man nicknamed the little aeroplane during his playing days still has much work to do if he is to achieve success above and beyond that of Prandelli.
Some would say that Fiorentina rode their luck through the competition back in 2007/08, winning three of the ties via penalty shoot-outs. However they could have gone all the way but for their inability to convert chances and close out games, as was all too clearly apparent in the tie against Rangers.
Returning to the Fiorentina of today, despite recent poor performances in Serie A, they have been strong in the Europa League and have perhaps been more convincing than they were back in 2008. Mohammed Salah is the player akin to Adrian Mutu, the man that can change a game with a spark of genius – albeit he comes with significantly less baggage. Having been knocked out of the Coppa Italia at the semi-final stage and having lost all realistic chance of qualifying for the Champions League through league position in Serie A, wining the Europa League is the Viola’s number one objective.
Sevilla, who have not lost a game at home in all competitions and have scored over 100 goals this season will provide tough opposition. In recent times, Fiorentina have recruited many Spanish speaking players under the influence of technical director Eduardo Macía, who has recently moved to Sevilla’s city rivals, Real Betis. With Sevilla’s goalscoring record, they are unlikely to play for penalties like Rangers did in 2008, which may be good news for Fiorentina given that they have missed five out of the six spot-kicks awarded to them in the league this season. It will be Montella’s sternest test thus far but whatever happens, the tie should certainly be easy on the eye.