“We meet again,” ran the headline on the Tottenham website shortly after the club was paired with Fiorentina in the Europa League last 32 for the second straight year. It's a sentiment that has been echoed by fans of both sides as the match has drawn closer.
Yet while the continuity Mauricio Pochettino enjoys has helped Spurs take giant steps towards title contention in the Premier League, their opponents have undergone wholesale changes since their previous meeting last term.
Indeed, while just five new players arrived at White Hart Lane last summer, the Italians are now almost unrecognisable from the team who eliminated Spurs at this same stage just 12 months ago. First to go was coach Vincenzo Montella, the former Roma, Sampdoria and Fulham striker who was sacked in strange circumstances as Fiorentina’s owners accused him of unprofessional behaviour while he bemoaned a lack of investment in the squad.
Montella was replaced by another man familiar to English fans: ex-QPR and Leicester boss Paulo Sousa. The Portuguese has done away with the counter-attacking style preferred by his predecessor, instead favouring a possession-based attack that draws far more influence from Spanish football than the Italian game.
The earliest indication of just how good this team could be came when they travelled to San Siro back in September, handing Roberto Mancini’s Inter their first loss of the season. More than just taking three points, the Viola inflicted a 4-1 mauling upon their opponents, propelling them to the top of Serie A for the first time since 1999 in the process.
Like most Serie A coaches, Sousa has displayed great tactical acumen, regularly altering formations to nullify various opponents, with no fewer than five different set-ups employed so far this term. Able to play with either a three-man defence or a more orthodox back four, what has been most surprising about 2015/16 is that Fiorentina have enjoyed so much success despite the complete overhaul of their playing staff.
If the draw evoked memories of last season’s encounter for those in the Spurs squad, it is therefore unlikely to have done the same for those who will pull on the purple shirt on Thursday night.
Neto (free, Juventus)
Micah Richards (end of loan)
Stefan Savic (£18.5m, Atletico Madrid)
Jose Maria Basanta (loan, Monterrey)
David Pizarro (free, Wanderers)
Joaquin (£1.1m, Real Betis)
Mario Gomez (loan, Besiktas)
Mohamed Salah (end of loan)
Alberto Aquilani (free, Sporting)
Of the 16 players who featured for Spurs over the two legs of that 3-1 aggregate defeat, 10 remain part of the current squad. That stands in stark contrast to their Italian counterparts, with just three of the men who started the second leg for Fiorentina still at the club.
Their trio of goalscorers in that game have all moved on: Mario Gomez, Jose Basanta and Mohamed Salah are now plying their trade at Besiktas, Monterrey and Roma respectively. The club haven't really missed them, though, largely thanks to to their new-look strike partnership of Josip Ilicic and Nikola Kalinic.
Slovenian Ilicic had struggled to make much of an impression since joining Fiorentina in July 2013, but has exploded this season, contributing 12 goals and five assists. Kalinic has scored one goal fewer since joining the club from Dnipro last summer.
The pair feature prominently whichever formation Sousa deploys, and their performances kept Giuseppe Rossi out of the side after he recovered from injury. The former Manchester United man was allowed to join Levante, but there remains hope that the Italian will return to the Stadio Artemio Franchi, where he thrived alongside former Villarreal team-mate Borja Valero in the short time he managed to stay fit.
Spanish midfielder Valero – who suffered relegation with West Brom in 2008/09 before leaving after a season – remains key to Fiorentina’s approach, underlined as he inspired them to take control of third place at the expense of Inter last weekend.
Valero sets up a difficult chance for Rossi
Valero looks most effective when deployed as a deep-lying playmaker in the 4-2-3-1 configuration which arguably best suits the entire squad. That system also allows left-footed youngster Federico Bernardeschi to play in a more advanced position on the right flank, a role that brings out the best in a player who has already been linked with Europe’s top clubs.
Handed the club’s iconic No.10 shirt previously worn by the likes of Giancarlo Antognoni and Manuel Rui Costa, the 22-year-old has thrived under Sousa and is developing into a formidable forward.
Brains and brawn
But while the Viola – like Tottenham – have always been synonymous with creative attacking talent, arguably the most important man in their current set-up is captain Gonzalo Rodriguez.
If Valero is the brain that keeps their free-flowing passing game moving, the Argentine is its beating purple heart in central defence, the man engaged to a Tuscan girl he met in a local gelateria who understands what the club means to supporters.
Rodriguez nods home against Torino
Although he believes the team are “more balanced” under Sousa than they had been previously, he’s refused to choose between domestic or European success. “We want both,” he told Tuttosport earlier this season; Rodriguez is vital to such hopes, with his defensive solidity and aerial prowess in the opposition’s box important attributes.
Both Pochettino and Sousa face selection headaches ahead of this clash: although title-chasing Spurs have more depth to their squad than the Italians – particularly in defensive areas – the fixture list could be a major factor in how the two sides line up. Tottenham have an FA Cup meeting with Crystal Palace in between the two legs, while Fiorentina have matches with Napoli and Roma – the teams directly above and below them in the table – on the horizon.
That could prove a severe hindrance to the Viola’s hopes of progression, although it's a balancing act they managed to negotiate last year on their way to the semi-finals. The question is whether this new-look side can repeat the feat managed by Montella’s men against Spurs last season.
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