There is still something exciting about opening up a fresh page in a brand new notebook and starting to write. No matter how many times you may have messed up before, you can convince yourself that this time around you will get it right. There is a similar sense of foolish optimism in Florence this summer.
After an amazing 10-year journey under owners Diego and Andrea Della Valle - the brothers behind the Tod’s shoe empire - there is the definite feel of a new beginning at Fiorentina. The manager, backroom staff and many of the playing personnel have been replaced. A real wind of change has been blowing down from the Fiesole hills.
For those who have not been following the last decade of the Viola’s turbulent history it has had more ups and downs than a mountain pass over the Appenines. It is worth a brief resume in order to understand this summer’s upheaval. The tale has as many twists as a packet of fusilli pasta.
Back in 2002, the Tuscan club stood on the brink of the abyss after a proud 76-year history. The route to economic oblivion under previous owner Vittorio Cecchi Gori was only avoided at the last minute by the intervention of the Della Valle boys. Under a new name, Florentia Viola, the team found itself condemned to Serie C2 - the fourth tier of the game.
They won immediate promotion that season and, in a typical piece of Italian jiggery-pokery, made the “double-jump” to Serie B due to their historic importance as a club. After a sluggish start, they sneaked back to Serie A through an epic play-off with Perugia. In the space of three years they had effectively travelled up and down six divisions.
A bit like a diver with the bends, however, their meteoric rise was not without its headaches. That first season back in the top flight was not a straightforward one. They survived, but not without making their fans suffer along the way. The scale of what they had been through threatened to overwhelm them - and more trials and tribulations were to come.
A year later, fired by the goals of Luca Toni and the masterful tactics of Cesare Prandelli, they thought they had achieved an incredible Champions League finish only to be stripped of it due to their part in the Calciopoli scandal sentences. It would, however, only delay their delight as 12 months later the goal of European football was achieved. They had gone from some of the tiniest grounds in Tuscany to the very top of the continental game.
And they rattled a few cages in their exploits outside of Italy. Alberto Gilardino, Adrian Mutu and Stevan Jovetic became names to be feared by defenders beyond the confines of Serie A. An entertaining and enterprising brand of football captured the imaginations of spectators a long way from the Renaissance city.
But then, after a pulsating two-legged tie with Bayern Munich in the Champions League, the wheels somehow came off the happy bandwagon. An outrageous offside goal which was allowed to stand in the first leg in Germany and heart-breaking away goals to kick them out in Florence took the wind from their sails. Suddenly they seemed to be wading through mud instead of walking on water.
Coach Prandelli took the Italy job and a string of famous name players shipped out too. Sinisa Mihajlovic was brought in to oversee the transition but failed to produce anything other than run-of-the-mill football. He was then replaced by Delio Rossi whose reign ended in spectacular style with a touchline bust-up with Adem Ljajic. Relegation was only avoided at the last gasp.
The club’s reaction this summer was one of the most radical clear-outs in its history. Sporting director Pantaleo Corvino had already been sent packing. A string of players were sent on to pastures new. It seemed like the Stadio Artemio Franchi might become a deserted dustbowl by the end of the transfer market.
But then the new names began to arrive. Lifelong Viola fan Emiliano Viviano to replace Artur Boruc in goal. Argentinians Facundo Roncaglia and Gonzalo Rodriguez joined Egyptian Ahmed Hegazy in bolstering the defence. Chileans Matias Fernandez and David Pizarro were added to the midfield along with the never-settled-at-Liverpool Alberto Aquilani, Spaniard Borja Valero and Colombian Juan Cuadrado. Meanwhile, Mounir El Hamdoui was snapped up from Ajax in a move the club thought it had completed last January. The first part of every team training session must have been introducing the new arrivals.
How the whole side will gel is anybody’s guess. Initial assessments have voiced reservations about the lack of a midfield enforcer in the squad but the number of talented ball-players cannot be denied. With Stevan Jovetic and Ljajic already on their books, creativity is not in short supply.
A first competitive outing against Novara in the Coppa Italia seemed to hint that it could work out for new coach Vincenzo Montella. He ditched his preferred 4-3-3 formation that was his trademark at Catania to go with a 3-5-2 that made best use of the midfield resources at his disposal. Against more lowly opposition it was enough to get the job done and, at times, draw vociferous approval from the home support.
Andrea Della Valle has been a watchful presence in the whole process. His constant gaze on pre-season training seemed to indicate he realised he may have taken his eye off the ball in recent times. The message he has been keen to put across is that the drab football of the last two seasons was not acceptable.
It is all very well to have those intentions but a tough opening sequence of matches will put the new regime to a stern test. In addition, they face constant interest in Jovetic and young defender Matija Nastasic which threatens to destabilise their efforts. If they keep hold of those two players and get off to a decent start, however, they might yet be a surprise package once more.
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