It is a sign of the decline of Italian football in recent years that a trip to Florence at the end of September wasn’t – at least, not before kick-off – a cause of major concern for Liverpool. Ten or fifteen years ago things might have been different, but the Premier League is wallowing and basking in its opulence at the moment while Italian football is scratching its head and wondering where things went wrong. Success of the sort that English clubs have had in recent years in the Champions League have had, however, is seldom more than transient, and Fiorentina offer a cautionary tale of their own for the debt-sodden Premier League.
Ten years ago, Fiorentina were, as they are now, Champions League entrants. They knocked Arsenal out of the first group stages of the competition, winning 1-0 at Highbury in a penultimate group match which almost guaranteed their accession to the ill-conceived second group stages of the competition, where they were knocked out by Manchester United and Valencia. Two years later, however, the foundations upon which their success had been built were uncovered as rotten. They were relegated at the end of the 2001/02 season with debts of $50m, refused a place in Serie B and dropped into Serie C2, the Italian equivalent of League Two.
The club earned a fortuitous double promotion thanks to the infamous “Casa Catanio” on the way back to Serie A, but flirted with relegation once back and were also implicated in the 2006 betting scandal which engulfed Italian football, being deducted fifteen points for the start of the 2006/07 season. They made their return to the Champions League last season, but the warning signs are there. The high life can be swept away at any point, and very few clubs are big enough to be able to withstand any financial mismanagement if that mismanagement is profound enough. Nothing in football is guaranteed in perpetuity.
Fiorentina’s current team is shorn of star names (unless we include Chelsea’s arch fiscal nemesis, Adrian Mutu), but coach Cesare Prandelli has built a team of solid professionals, such as the French goalkeeper Sebastien Frey and veteran midfielders Cristiano Zanetti and Martin Jørgensen. More importantly even than this, they have the Montenegrin wonder-kid Stevan Joveti?, who signed for them from Partizan Belgrade last year and is already said to be being closely monitored by Manchester United. It iss he that carves two holes in the Liverpool defence from which the English club can’t recover.
With almost half an hour played, Joveti? gives Fiorentina the lead. Liverpool’s feeble offside trap seems to be dependent on the linesman incorrectly flagging Adrian Mutu offside, but Mutu, sensibly, stops running and makes himself inactive in order to allow Joveti? to run onto a through-ball and itl past Pepe Reina. Fiorentina have a plan, and are playing a higher tempo and higher pressure game that Liverpool might have been expecting. They keep the pressure up after the first goal and nine minutes later they double their lead when Vargas drills the ball into penalty and Joveti? flicks the ball brilliantly, catching Reina out at his near post and squeezing the ball past him.
With a comfortable 2-0 lead at half-time, Fiorentina can take the pressure off in the second half and Liverpool don’t have much by way of reply. Yossi Benayoun forces a comfortable save from Frey and Lucas heads over from close range shortly afterwards, but the second half is a masterclass of control from Fiorentina, who dictate the pace of the game and seldom seriously look like having their lead cut or wiped out. Without Javier Mascherano’s muscle in midfield, this is a Liverpool performance that lacks muscle and the almost trademarked Premier League arrogance (which is not necessarily an unwanted trait for a team to carry on the pitch) that has characterised so many performances by Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in recent seasons.
Tonight’s result isn’t by any means a disaster for Liverpool. The Champions League group stage has a built in safety valve which allows the biggest clubs the occasional off night – the mini-group system allows for this sort of thing. Two years ago, Liverpool lost to Besiktas and Marseille in the group stages but still sneaked through and went on to only be knocked out after extra time in the semi-finals by Chelsea. This group, however, is starting to look slightly sticky for them. Lyon have started with two wins and Liverpool have dropped to third place after their defeat this evening. Reasonably, they need at least one win from their two matches against Lyon, and if Fiorentina can play anything like they did tonight at Anfield in the return match between the two sides there is no guarantee of a win in that match either. Liverpool’s passage into the last sixteen of the competition is far from assured, for now.