It’s a sad day for Italian soccer: out of the 4 teams still in contention in the UEFA Cup, only the Viola have managed to qualify for the next phase of the competition (and only after a penalty shootout). The remaining 3 teams Palermo, Empoli and Sampdoria will be forced to watch the remainder of the Cup on their TV screens.
In the 2nd Leg of UEFA Cup’s First Round (Group Stage will begin at the end of the month), Palermo saw their qualification hopes nullified after their opponents Mlada Boleslav scored in the 93rd, tying the game on aggregate. In the penalty shootout, the errors of Cavani and Caserta were fatal to the Rosanero. In Florence, the Viola fought back to equalize the initial Groningen goal, and tied the game 3 minutes later with Adrian Mutu. As no winner could be decided after 120 minutes, the ensuing penalty shootout saw Fiorentina emerge victorious with 4 goals from the spot to 3.
Meanwhile, the away goals scored by Danish club Aalborg proved fatal for Sampdoria, who despite starting Antonio Cassano from the first minute could not go beyond a 0-0 draw at the Marassi stadium. Lastly, Empoli had a very tough night in Switzerland as they conceded 3 goals to FC Zurich, and saw their 2-1 victory in the first leg made useless.
It’s shocking news in Italy, but Palermo are out of the UEFA Cup to the modest Czech team of Mlada Boleslav. The Rosanero had managed to control the game to a tie, with little trouble containing the rare offensive incursions of their opponents. However, when the qualification to the next round seemed like a sure thing, Mlada score an (offside) goal deep into stoppage time, sending the match into extra time. The spot shots were fatal to Palermo, who on this occasion can consider themselves very unlucky, especially in terms of all the injuries they sustained.
With Marco Pisano, Cristian Zaccardo, Alberto Fontana, and Franco Brienza already out injury, Fabrizio Miccoli joined the gang when he pulled a calf muscle during warm-up. Something that will surely not give Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini a lot to smile about. Tactically, the Mlada coach fielded a surprising 4-1-4-1 formation with 1 lone striker (despite the fact they were trailing a goal on aggregate), while Stefano Colantuono responded with a 4-3-2-1 line-up with his best players (those that weren’t in the infirmary, that is). The first half was very shy in scoring occasions to say the least, and the timid attemps of Jan Kysela and Giovanni Tedesco did little to awaken the game from its slumber. To provide entertainement for the 6,000 paying visitors of the Stadio Renzo Barbera, the referee Gonzalez decided to take a few cards out of his pockets, and sent off Roberto Guana of Palermo and team manager Zdeněk Ščasný for Mlada.
Midway the 2nd period, we finally saw a scoring chance worthy of that name thanks to a few shots by Edison Cavani, but the Mlada keeper was ready. Tired legs eventually brought the two coaches to operate some changes (Diana, Jankovic and Bresciano for Palermo, Kalina, Venecek, Holub for Mlada), but it changed little to the game’s pace. Fabio Simplicio had a few shooting attemps from outside the box, but his accuracy left a lot to be desired.
In the final minutes of the game, the visitors had launched a last-ditch assault onto the Palermo goal, and contrary to all expectations and completely against the pace of the game, catastrophe took place. After a corner kick for the Czech team, the ball was crossed in the box, eventually hitting the Mlada keeper (!) who had made the run forward, setting up Tomas Sedlacek for the goal! Despite the Czech player was in offside position, the goal stood and the match was suddenly going into extra time.
In added time, the game considerably picked up in pace (duh, the Rosanero were really pissed at conceding an offside goal in the 93rd): Aimo Diana hit the woodwork exploiting a Simplicio free kick, and later on Palermo keeper Federico Agliardi had a big scare when Mendy sent a chipped shot onto the topside of the crossbar. 0-1 the final score, and on to PKs we went. The rest is history: Cavani and Caserta missed their shots, sending the 150 visiting Czech supporters into rapture.
Fiorentina debuted this match with the “best possible formation” (as explicitly put by manager Cesare Prandelli). The only notable change with respect to previous Viola matches was the faith the coach put in Bobo Vieri, starting the match alongside Franco Semioli and Adrian Mutu in place of Giampaolo Pazzini. Per Kroldrup was also replacing injured Dario Dainelli.
Prandelli had given clear indications to the team not to modify their usual offensive stance, because limiting themselves to a defence of the 1-1 first leg result would have been a mistake. It seemed as the Viola boys had absorbed the instructions to the letter, because Riccardo Montolivo immediately went looking for the goal in the 7th minute (shot wide). 12 minutes later the Fiorentina midfielder had another try, this time on target, and Vieri almost got the winning tap-in because of the sloppy hands of keeper Brian Van Loo.
Then at the 31′ minute mark, it was Mutu’s turn in the spotlight, as the Romanian striker exploited a good Vieri pass and blasted a point-blank shot right on top of the crossbar! Some good chances for Fiorentina… Onto the other end, the Viola’s opponents were being also quite productive: a deep run by Bruno Silva ended with a narrowly wide shot, and an absolute howitzer by Jevhen Levtsjenko finished over the bar by a few yards.
10 minutes into the 2nd half, the Dutch club managed to take the lead: a beautiful build up to set up Erik Nevland for the finish. 1-0 Groningen. The Viola equalizer took only 3 minutes to arrive though, courtesy of Adrian Mutu and his accurate diagonal low shot. The visitors immediately had the chance to re-take the lead with a close-range header of Van de Laak, but Sebastien Frey managed to pull a supersave out of his keeper hat, keeping the score tied 1-1.
At this point there were about 30 minutes left in the game, and the Viola players were obviously feeling a bit tired. Prandelli substituted Bobo Vieri and Fabio Liverani with Mario Santana and Giampaolo Pazzini, but despite the fresh meat Fiorentina still suffered a lot in the final minutes (especially in midfield). The fear that the game might go to overtime and penalties became reality, as the score was still tied after 90 minutes.
In extra time, Prandelli’s men got the best of the chances to take the game away. First Pazzini exploited a good Tomas Ujfalusi cross and delivered a close-range header that missed the post by only a few inches. Then in the 2nd half of extra time, Montolivo and Semioli had the last chances of the match, respectively on a 40m long-ranger and a hard header saved by the keeper. The only scare for Frey came from a dangerous shot of Lewtsjenko in the 1st period.
In the penalty shootout, after 2 misses for Groningen and 1 for Fiorentina, Adrian Mutu scored the decisive shot that put the Viola through. As the only Italian team making it to the next round, Fiorentina will know their next adversaries on Tuesday, the day of the UEFA Cup groups draw in Nyon, Switzerland.
Sampdoria may have a lot to blame on misfortune for their result tonight (the many missed chances are witness to that fact), but most of all they should be biting their nails for the 2-2 home game they conceded in the first leg. Choosing to keep fresh energies for their upcoming Genoa derby, the Blucerchiati ended up fielding a sub-par lineup which they only corrected as the game was well on its way. In the end, it’s what probably cost them the elimination on the aggregate score.
Tonight, Walter Mazzarri chose to start Antonio Cassano right from the start in this match, despite the ex-Bari talent is still somewhat far of top match-fitness, at least compared to his teammates. To support him on the front lines, the Sampdoria coach picked Claudio Bellucci and Andrea Caracciolo as the lone striker. In goal, Luca Castellazzi made his return and actually ended up being the best of the Blucerchiati tonight, making key saves on the shots of Johansson, Enedvoldsen, and Nomvethe.
From their part, Sampdoria played a lot better in midfield than their first leg, thanks in particular to the good night of Gennaro Delvecchio in the playmaking role. Launching wave after wave of offensives, the Bluecerchiati hit the woodwork in the 26′ minute mark with Bellucci, who exploited a good Caracciolo pass after a Reto Ziegler set-up. Vincenzo Montella did his part to contribute in the attacks, but it just wasn’t Sampdoria’s night. The home team actually had a few more opportunities of their own, benefitting from the sold out Aalborg stadium crowd support. 0-0 the final score, 2-2 on aggregate, which meant qualification for the home team and elimination for Sampdoria.
As for Empoli, they got punished by essentially two things: their lack of accuracy in the finishing zone, and the cynicism of a Zurich team which transformed into goals all the chances they obtained. The final 3-0 scoreline is way too severe for team coached by Gigi Cagni, and does not reflect the way this game went down. In the end, the result is the same and Empoli are out of the UEFA Cup.
The first half’s highlight was without a doubt the disallowed goal to Francesco Marianini, who had scored in a perfect legitimate position from a close-range header, but had seen his goal called off due to a (mistakenly) passive offside of Rey Volpato. The score was 1-0 for Zurich at this point, following the opener of Sebastian Kollar on a corner-kick.
In the 2nd half Cagni put on Sebastian Giovinco and Nicola Pozzi, thereby packing up the offensive options for Empoli in midfield. The Tuscan team obtained a few chances through Pozzi, then Nicola Ascoli, but with no results. Instead, the Swiss team hit the Italians on the counter and managed to score two quick goals with Abdí and Alphonse, ending their hopes of qualification for good. The end of the game was marred by a red card given to Carlos Rincón, despite the foul had been committed by Pozzi. Just another mistake by the Slovenian referee officiating the match, which left a sour taste in Gigi Cagni’s mouth.
“I am sorry for the supporters that made the trip to Switzerland, it would have nice to qualify for the next round. I am especially sorry for the final 5 minutes because these violent reactions of frustration aren’t something you usually see in our team. (…) The final result is too heavy considering the match we played, and we deserved at least one goal, which we legitimately scored by the way. But that’s life, we’ll have to go forward and take our minds back to the Serie A”.