Monday, April 12, 2010

Coppa Italia: Fiorentina's last dream

From Bleacher Report

In terms of prestige it is pretty much accepted that the Coppa Italia ranks somewhere between the European tiddliwinks championship and the World conkers title.

It is almost always compared very unfavourably with its English equivalent, the FA Cup. Crowds are small, most big teams field understrength sides and you can count the number of shocks on the prongs of your pizza fork.

Poor scheduling, two-legged ties and an often cumbersome seeding system have never really given the competition a chance. It is in need of the kind of emergency makeover that could even kill the undying enthusiasm of Ty Pennington. It needs demolition and complete reconstruction.

This week, however, it has thrown up one of its more intriguing ties. The reason, quite simply, is that it means quite a lot to one of the participants and not very much to the other.

So all of the elements are there for an exciting semi-final clash between Fiorentina and Inter.

The reigning league champions won the first leg by a single goal in the San Siro but a packed Stadio Artemio Franchi will be hoping the Viola can turn the tie around on Tuesday. They warmed up with a thrilling 2-2 draw when they met in the league on Saturday.

Cesare Prandelli shocked a few pundits by fielding an apparently weakened side for that game. The Tuscan team has little hope of finishing in a top four spot in Serie A and getting back into the Champions League. He seemed to favour the cup clash.

That might seem puzzling given the lack of stature of the Coppa but look a little closer and it starts to make more sense. Fiorentina have a strong tradition in the tournament with six victories to their credit. More importantly, their coach has yet to win a trophy with this side.

Praise for their fine performances in Serie A and Europe has been nice, but there is really no substitute for a bit of silverware.

Up north in Milan, however, the TIM Cup (to give it its sponsor's name) is a less welcome distraction. Jose Mourinho's side are still in the hunt for the league and Champions League. There is little doubt this is the least attractive leg of their potential treble.

Yet they would be well advised not to snub the competition too much. Imagine how they might feel if they went out to Fiorentina and then missed out on their other two goals? Bad results can be contagious and the cup would at least be a small consolation if everything else goes wrong.

The Milanese, of course, have a squad designed to cope with such situations. Even their reserve side is one which most Serie A managers would love to have at their disposal. Defending a single goal lead should not be beyond them.

Even with Dejan Stankovic, Davide Santon and usual Coppa goalkeeper Francesco Toldo missing there is a formidable look to the Inter team. Fringe players like Marco Materazzi, Macdonald Mariga and the recently rehabilitated Mario Balotelli will all hope they get a chance to shine. There may even be room for young talent like Rene Krhin and Marko Artaunovic.

Fiorentina hope to respond with a trio of important returns. Cristiano Zanetti, Marco Marchionni and Juan Manuel Vargas are all likely to be reappear after missing the weekend clash.

The match comes, of course, at an unwelcome time for Inter. They face Juve in the league on Friday and Barcelona in the Champions League after that. That may just trip them up.

Mourinho will not be too worried about elimination if his side can secure at least one of its other seasonal targets. For Fiorentina, a final spot against either Roma or Udinese would be a major consolation for European and Serie A heartache.

The script should be that the game matters so much to the Viola that they grab the victory they need. But since when has football ever followed any kind of logic?