Vincenzo Montella arrived in London eight years ago an elegant striker in the twilight of his career. He returns to the capital this week an equally sophisticated manager, having established himself as one of the most promising tacticians in Italy in the interim. The 40-year-old coach has moulded Fiorentina into an attractive passing team, who could prove to be a formidable adversary for Tottenham in their last-32 tie of the Europa League at White Hart Lane this evening.
Montella, known as the ‘Little Aeroplane’ for his goal celebration as a player, only scored a handful of goals during his brief stint at Fulham but nevertheless became a celebrated figure amongst the Craven Cottage faithful. Ironically one of his most significant moments in English football came when he was sent off against Spurs in the FA Cup having scored three goals in the previous two rounds.
The dismissal for elbowing Robbie Keane was the only one of Montella’s entire career. It was untypical of his style as a player, just as it contrasts with his managerial philosophy. The former Roma man favours an attacking approach centred on possession as opposed to the tough tackling, defensive stereotype of Italian football at times. His arrival in Florence in the summer of 2012 was the dawn of a new era for La Viola as the club brought in 17 new players. He managed to gel together the group into a cohesive unit and the club went from thirteenth the previous year to missing out on a Champions League place to AC Milan on the final day of his debut campaign.
The core of the side that will line up against Spurs remains unchanged from that of Montella’s first season, with several of the protagonists familiar to an English audience. David Pizarro, who had a short loan spell with Manchester City before joining Fiorentina, dictates the play in the middle alongside Borja Valero, once of West Brom, and Matías Fernández. The trio can control the tempo of a game at will but lack the physicality that Mauricio Pochettino’s men have displayed in abundance in recent weeks.
The main change elsewhere comes as a result of the loss of Colombian talisman Juan Cuadrado to Chelsea in January. The winger was pivotal in adding a burst of pace to the team, but has been adequately replaced in the form of Stamford Bridge reject Mohamed Salah, who the club secured on loan with an option to buy as part of the £26.8m deal for Cuadrado. The Egyptian hit the ground running with a goal and an assist on his first Serie A start away to Sassuolo at the weekend.
The rest of the team depends on whether Montella sticks with his traditional 3-5-2 or adopts a 4-3-3 formation that has brought a great run of results since the turn of the year. Another former City man Stefan Savić is the keystone at the back beside Argentines Gonzalo Rodríguez and José Basanta, while Micah Richards has gradually integrated into the defence since his summer move.
The forward line has traditionally been a stumbling block for Fiorentina under Montella. La Viola have been plagued by injury problems in the department with former Manchester United youth Giuseppe Rossi and Bayern Munich hitman Mario Gómez perennially sidelined. However their fortunes have changed recently with Gómez fit and firing and Rossi scheduled to return before the end of the season. In addition the performances of young Senegalese striker Khouma Babacar are promising and he could have an impact off the bench tonight.
“It is important for us to go in with enthusiasm, not with euphoria,” explained the ‘Little Aeroplane’ in his pre-match press conference. Reports in the Italian press suggest he will name a team with the most European experience possible: “We will have to show reverence, but not fear against such a great team.”
Italian teams have begun to take the Europa League seriously after years of neglecting it, which damaged the country’s Uefa co-efficient ranking and ultimately lost Serie A its fourth Champions League qualifying spot to the Bundesliga. Fiorentina are one of five Italian outfits in the last-32 and with Montella at the helm are a team with aspirations of going all the way to the final.
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