Eleven years after almost disappearing from the football map, Fiorentina are back standing proud at the forefront of the Italian game. The side that so famously flirted with extinction have not just recovered but are thriving anew, and rousing the passions of fans across Florence, the city caught between the juggernaut Lombardy clubs to the north and Rome's celebrated duo to the south. Hopes are even growing that La Viola can write another stellar chapter in their history, to match the memories left by iconic former president Artemio Franchi, elegant 1982 FIFA World Cup™ winner Giancarlo Antognoni and record scorer Gabriel Batistuta.
The man at the forefront of Fiorentina's current renaissance is Vincenzo Montella, the club's ambitious, demanding yet impressively attentive coach. The 38-year-old former Roma striker is naturally bent on boosting the team's win tally, but he is equally keen for his players to triumph in style, like many of his peers in an exciting young crop of Italian tacticians.
Montella arrived in Florence with a firm philosophy that he has effortlessly succeeded in passing on to his charges and club owner Andrea Della Valle, the boss of a large shoe company. "Attractive football brings results," is his take, and it is an audacious one in a league where defensive rigour and attacking pragmatism have long held sway and brought inarguable success. Despite that tradition, Montella is proving himself to be a thoroughly persuasive force, having taken courses in psychology, public relations and sports management as well as eight university exams in physical education.
Della Valle has certainly placed his faith in the coach, backing him in his efforts to overhaul the squad. Not for Montella a long list of eye-catching names, however. On the recruitment front, as elsewhere, the former Italy international took to the summer transfer market with a clear set of ideas, starting by recruiting an array of players with experience of a three-man defence.
When I hear people talking about the Scudetto, I think that the only teams capable of troubling Juventus are Inter and Napoli.
As a result, Fiorentina rolled out the carpet for Argentinian pair Facundo Roncaglia and Gonzalo Rodriguez – from Boca Juniors and Villarreal respectively – Manchester City's 21-year-old Montenegrin Stefan Savic, Serbian international Nenad Tomovic from Lecce and ex-Palermo goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano. Each new recruit was a specialist in his position and they have all since taken Montella's message on board. In particular, the man in the dugout has curbed any instincts to punt hopeful clearances upfield, instead urging his defenders to pick out a colleague in midfield.
Montella made a point of bringing in specialist talents further forward as well, with his heart set on replicating a Spanish style of play based on constant passing and dominance of possession in order to pick apart opposing defences. That meant luring 33-year-old City midfielder David Pizarro, his Chilean compatriot Matias Fernandez from Sporting Lisbon and 2010 Spanish player of the year Borja Valero from Villarreal, and though not everyone was sold on his choices, Montella was convinced each player would slot into his system. The trio have subsequently proved him right, forming a midfield engine room high on technique and flanked by tireless dynamos such as captain Manuel Pasqual and Colombian winger Juan Guillermo Cuadrado.
To lend their efforts an added dimension, Montella has not had to look beyond club fuoriclasse (world-beater) Stevan Jovetic of Montenegro. Capable of playing across the attack, and allying sublime technique with superb vision, Jovetic is an archetypal mezzapunta (part-midfielder, part-forward) who can lend a hand in midfield when needed. Exceptional with his back to goal, the 23-year-old has matured into a complete player, and not only is he never shy to try his luck, he regularly makes the difference.
As Viola sporting director Daniele Prade explained earlier this term, "Jovetic is our best player and we have an agreement to keep him until the end of the season." Lastly, Montella dreamt of spearheading his side with Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov, but when that move fell through he turned to athletic former FIFA World Cup winner Luca Toni, snapping the 35-year-old up from Dubai outfit Al Nasr.
All in all, those changes amounted to a radical shake-up, and few imagined that Fiorentina's newcomers would gel so quickly when the campaign began. With 14 matches gone, however, they find themselves as high as third, level on points with Inter, two shy of Napoli and four behind leaders Juventus. Montella's troops likewise boast the third most prolific attack and the third-most miserly rearguard, while only Napoli and Juve can rival them for sheer spectacle. "We've been pleasantly surprised to see that the results have come so quickly," noted Prade. "But our real project is a medium and long-term one."
As for the coach himself, he is delighted that "Florence has started dreaming again", but he has been the first to urge caution as his methods continue to bear fruit. "To go away and win at Milan was a huge satisfaction," he commented after his side's 3-1 success at the San Siro earlier this month. "When I hear people talking about the Scudetto, though, I think that the only teams capable of troubling Juventus are Inter and Napoli."