Roma and Fiorentina will go all out for victory as Gabriel Batistuta watches on
Gabriel Batistuta was back in Florence this week. An Argentine film producer, Pablo Benedetti, has persuaded him to make a documentary about his life and no story about "Bati" would be complete without a trip to the banks of the Arno. Two years ago, Fiorentina's all-time top scorer was made an honorary citizen of the Tuscan capital, and when the mayor Dario Nardella heard he was back in town, he thought nothing of opening the doors of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall, for him to promote "El Numero Nueve" ("The Number Nine")
"The other day I was saying to my wife, it's been years, but the passion, the love people have for me has increased," Batistuta said. "I now understand that it was worth risking my ankles for this city, for the Florentines."
Apparently it was a coincidence that his visit should come in the same week as Roma's trip to the Stadio Artemio Franchi on Saturday. Batistuta's move to the capital in 2000 led Fiorentina fans to melt down the life-size statue they had erected in his honour. He famously broke down in tears immediately after scoring a half volley against them that set Roma on their way to winning the Scudetto. The Curva Fiesole fans have long forgiven him and unsurprisingly Batistuta reveals: "Pablo wants me to go the game." I mean, who can blame him?
Regardless of the 49-year-old's own personal history with both clubs, Saturday's match will be competitive and has the potential to be a lot of fun. These two love taking points off each other and last season is a great example. Roma won in Florence and Fiorentina won in Rome, reflecting perhaps the risk both these teams are willing to take in pressing high and defending big spaces, the kind of situation that attacking players of Federico Chiesa and Marko Pjaca's ilk, not to mention Cengiz Under and Stephan El Shaarawy, just can't get enough of.
Coaches Stefano Pioli and Eusebio Di Francesco are all about vertical football. In fact, if you were to generate a word cloud based on the language they use to sum up their respective philosophies and what they feel their teams could do more of on any given Sunday, then the "V" word would be bolded, front and centre. It makes for helter-skelter football whenever they meet. Four wins apiece in the head-to-heads between the two managers testify to that, as do the 25 goals scored in those games, and if Batistuta were still playing you can bet he'd be firing off a few rounds doing his trademark machine gun celebration.
The teeming potential in both ranks is genuine cause for excitement.
Fiorentina have the youngest team in Europe's top five leagues and invariably field a starting XI with an average age of 23. Alban Lafont, "the French Gianluigi Donnarumma," is 19 and unafraid to drop a shoulder and dribble a striker as part of Fiorentina's commitment to passing out from the back. Nikola Milenkovic, 21, has followed the same path as Stefan Savic and Matija Nastasic in making a name for himself at Fiorentina as a top defensive prospect and, boy, can the Serb hit a shot.
Jordan Veretout looks like the player he promised to be when he won the Under-20 World Cup beside Paul Pogba and Geoffrey Kondogbia a few years back. He got into double figures in all competitions last year. Marco Benassi, the former Italy u21 captain, is the team's top scorer, mastering the art of late runs into the box, and he was one of three Fiorentina players called up to the senior squad in October.
But it's up front where Fiorentina cause the pulse to race and the heartbeat to quicken.
OK, Pjaca has yet to hit the heights of Euro 2016 when Juventus felt they had to have him. The Croat was dropped for last weekend's draw against Torino as was Diego Simeone's boy, Giovanni, who has scored every time he's played Roma but finds himself in the midst of a five-game scoring drought. Still, you can't help but marvel at the skill and effort of this trio, incarnated best by Chiesa, another chip off the old block. It has Fiorentina fans enthused. The club is also quietly confident that they might have hit the jackpot with another teenager, Dusan Vlahovic, who, as in the case of Milenkovic, has been whisked away from Partizan Belgrade early and is already in Pioli's first-team plans after setting youth-team football alight in Italy.
Roma, in truth, aren't too dissimilar. While the squad is undeniably deeper and more balanced in terms of the blend between youth and experience, Di Francesco can call upon talents like Lorenzo and Luca Pellegrini, Nicolo Zaniolo, Ante Coric, and line up his own sky's-the-limit front three of Patrik Schick, Under and Justin Kluivert.
The future Fiorentina and Roma have invested in looks bright. As for the present, Saturday's game has a delicacy to it that perhaps explains why the conflicted Batistuta would prefer to stay away.
Roma, you feel, have to win or risk that the Champions League train, already three points in the distance, pulls further away. Their rivals for a top-four spot are, with the exception of AC Milan, all at home against teams you'd reasonably expect them to beat. Unreliable at the Olimpico, at least in the league, where they suffered a shock defeat to SPAL and drew with Atalanta and Chievo, the need to avoid relinquishing more ground while on the road assumes ever greater importance.
The tallest team in Serie A, Roma will fancy themselves even more than usual to do damage from dead-ball situations against a side that is particularly vulnerable in this area. Lorenzo Pellegrini's deliveries for the towering Edin Dzeko, Steven N'Zonzi and Federico Fazio will be a cause of concern to Pioli, the former Lazio coach, given that three of the past six goals Fiorentina have conceded have come from set pieces.
One of four teams on 15 points, including Roma, Pioli's side couldn't wait for the season to get started. Fiorentina came back for preseason early, starting training camp at the end of June amid the uncertainty surrounding Milan's participation in the Europa League and the prospect of potentially having to replace them. Initially thrown out, Milan were then reinstated and Fiorentina were left wishing they'd stayed on holiday. The Viola's season was further delayed when their opening game against Sampdoria was called off after the Morandi Bridge tragedy.
When Chievo came to Florence the following weekend, they didn't know what hit them. Fiorentina scored six for the first time in 22 years and, dauntingly for Roma, have been near perfect at the Franchi ever since, taking 13 of 15 points available. They made Napoli work at the San Paolo and didn't deserve to lose at Inter. But the legs are beginning to look a little tired after the lack of rest over the summer.
Ups and downs are also to be expected with such a young side. But the mood in Florence is hopeful and positive. There is more patience and less expectation than in Rome and 20,000 season tickets sold reflect not only belief in the team but how a city and a football team came together after the tragic death of captain and former Roma defender Davide Astori. His shirt still hangs in the dressing room and German Pezzella wears his armband, which the club was fined for repeatedly until the league saw common sense and granted special dispensation after initially attempting to enforce a standardised one across Serie A.
The atmosphere at the Franchi these days is hard to describe; it has to be experienced and it's something from which Fiorentina's players draw inspiration to seize the day. Roma, who are well positioned to win their Champions League group, need to approach this game as if it were a big European night. Dzeko has to replicate the decisiveness he is showing in that competition.
It promises to be box office. Maybe Benedetti should shelve Batistuta's documentary for one night and make a film about this game instead.