La Viola facing another survival battle

LIVERPOOL fans are familiar enough with uncertainty over club finances and their owners’ intentions to have some sympathyfor their opponents tonight.

Fiorentina are a club that literally have come back from oblivion.

Seven years ago they were relegated, went bankrupt and ceased to exist. They restarted in the fourth tier of Italian football with new owners, and their subsequent revival has been almost miraculous.

The miracle workers are the businessmen Diego Della Valle and his brother Andrea, owners of Tod’s, Italy biggest producer of luxury shoes, together with coach Cesare Prandelli and Director of Sport Pantaleo Corvino.

Reaching the Champions League group stage two years running is unprecedented for La Viola but five days ago the club’s future was again thrown into doubt, when Andrea Della Valle stepped down as president.

“To realise our dream, what we need above all, more than economic means, is faith,” said Della Valle, in an open letter to the fans. “We need everyone to believe that our objectives can be achieved, and the patience and the constancy necessary to reach them. Indeed, faith is what I felt was missing around the team and that is what has led me to take a pause for reflection in my direct running of the club.”

His resignation was seen as a response to criticism from the fans over the sale of their Brazilian star Felipe Melo to Juventus. It was a clever piece of business, but it weakened the side and Juventus are also Fiorentina’s arch enemies.

In fact Della Valle’s resignation was a thinly disguised message to the Florence city authorities to hurry up with the plans to replace the antiquated Artemio Franchi stadium with a brand new sports complex, complete with theme park, the Citadella Viola, at a new site in the north of the city.

Like almost all Italian clubs, Fiorentina lease their ground from the city and it is impossible for a firm the size of Tod’s to sustain a club with European ambitions indefinitely.

Wages have been held down. Three players are paid just over €2 million a year – Adrian Mutu, Alberto Gilardino and goalkeeper Sebastien Frey – but most of the rest earn less than half the average Premier League salary.

This summer the transfer budget was just €15 million but Fiorentina have operated skilfully in the transfer market, splashing out occasionally on key men such as strikers Mutu and Gilardino, and balancing the books by selling players such as Melo and Giampaolo Pazzini for a handsome profit.

But their success has mainly been earned by recruiting and developing lesser lights such as Ricardo Montolivo and Marco Donadel in midfield. That policy will be tested tonight, as it has been already this season with a nervy qualifying round against Sporting, which the Portuguese might have won in Florence, and a disappointing 1-0 defeat in Lyon.

A red card for Gilardino in that match means the Italy striker misses tonight’s game, a definite advantage for Liverpool as he has scored in three of Fiorentina’s last four matches in Serie A. Mutu by contrast has been enduring poor form, and has recently been injured, and Mario Santana, a creative influence on the left of midfield, is also a doubt.

The surprise player so far has been Stevan Jovetic, who is due to play alongside Mutu tonight. Jovetic managed just two goals last season but has already scored six for club and country this time round, and will need to be watched when Montenegro visit Croke Park next month.

Fiorentina’s recent league form looks good on paper. They are currently level with Inter, just two points behind league leaders Sampdoria who they beat 2-0 last Wednesday. That was followed by a 1-0 win on Saturday, which marked 100 wins in all competitions for their popular coach Cesare Prandelli. But it was an unconvincing performance against newly-promoted Livorno. Their man of the match was Frey in goal and they might easily have been a couple of goals down at half time. They were also well beaten by Roma 10 days ago.

Those matches have left Fiorentina fans fatalistic about tonight, although no doubt they will be cheered by Javier Mascherano’s absence. They are not the strongest side physically and the concern is that Liverpool’s strength and pressing will prove too much for a midfield in which Cristiano Zanetti is the only experienced hand.

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