Mauricio Pochettino’s hugely impressive Tottenham Hotspur side travel to Italy to take on Paulo Sousa’s Fiorentina at the Stadio Artemio Franchi on Thursday.
Fiorentina host a familiar opponent from London in the form of Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League Round of 32 tie on Thursday. Having knocked them out at the same stage of the competition last season, the Italian side will come into the fixture with more confidence than their English counterparts.
However, the Spurs side is a much-improved version of the team they faced in 2014-2015. With a newfound purpose and a squad that exudes synergy, Tottenham have been transformed by their Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino into a side that strikes fear into the heart of their opponents.
Fiorentina, on the other hand, are not a side that should be taken lightly either. The Viola, who are in third place on the Serie A table, are a team currently enjoying a five-match undefeated streak. As such, Paulo Sousa’s men will be brimming with confidence — particularly after beating Inter Milan 2-1 last weekend — and will hope to achieve the same result as last season against their North London opponents.
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Paulo Sousa vs Mauricio Pochettino
Coming from different footballing cultures, the two managers understandably have differing philosophies with regards to their approach to the game. Paulo Sousa likes to set up in a quintessentially Italian system, with a solid defensive formation of 3-4-2-1. It is evident from this formation that Fiorentina like to defend and hit back at their opponents through counter-attacks and set-pieces.
With three central defenders and two wing-backs who will fall back to make a five-man defensive wall, Sousa will look to crowd the box and plug all gaps and spaces that Tottenham’s attacking players will look to penetrate. Davide Astori, Gonzalo Rodriguez and Facundo Roncaglia will be the three chosen central defenders and will look to ensure that their strong home record against English sides remain intact.
Given Tottenham’s outstanding run in the Premier League, Mauricio Pochettino could choose to prioritize domestic football over the Europe League in a bid to make a push for the title. However, the past few fixtures have taught us that Pochettino likes to play a strong side in every competition, and as such, apart from the usual rotation in the full-back positions, the team is likely to be more or less the same.
Pochettino will look to play his usual 4-2-3-1 formation with a narrow three-man midfield and will expect his wing-backs to run down the flanks and swing in crosses for striker Harry Kane. Nacer Chadli, Tom Carroll and Erik Lamela, who all made cameos in the 2-1 win at Manchester City, are expected to start this fixture in a bid to trouble the Italian side.
Fiorentina’s fortress is unlikely to be destroyed given their defensive strength. The Florence-based outfit have been quite solid at home and usually fare well against English sides, even though they haven’t done too well at home this term in the Europa League. On the other hand, despite appearing tireless in every game, Spurs have had a tough time away from home in the Europa League this season, registering a win, a defeat and a draw thus far. Given the two varied set-ups and tactical approaches, a goalless draw is a distinct possibility on Thursday.
Key Player Battles
Gonzalo Rodriguez vs Harry Kane
Harry Kane came to the fore for Tottenham Hotspur last season after his consistent performances in the Europa League. Having netted 16 times this season in the Premier League, he will now look to leave his mark in the competition that brought him into the spotlight.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez is Fiorentina’s main central defender and will be given the task of marking the English striker. The two will work tirelessly to get the best of each other, but playing at home and boosted by the win over Inter, the Argentine may well come out on top.
Nikola Kalinic vs Kevin Wimmer
Kalinic has been in exceptional form for the Italian side from Florence. Having scored ten goals in the Serie A this season, he is the in-form striker Sousa will look to for getting his goals. On the other hand, Kevin Wimmer is enjoying regular football with Tottenham Hotspur due to Jan Vertonghen’s injury. Although a younger and less experienced defender, Wimmer has been a like-for-like replacement for the Belgian centre-back and has been crucial in keeping Tottenham solid in defence.
Kalinic will face an uphill task in getting the better of the Austrian giant. With the assistance of Hugo Lloris in goal, Wimmer is expected to emerge victorious from this battle.
Tom Carroll vs Matias Vecino
The two young midfielders are roughly the same age, and will have similar roles to play for their sides. Playing as box-to-box midfielders, the two will look to break up any plays in the midfield as well as dictate the game from the deep.
The youngsters have a fondness to play short passes and lay off shots for other midfield players and strikers in their side, and it will be interesting to watch the duo trying to outdo each other in the middle of the pitch. Vecino, having played more football this season, is likely to adjust more easily to the intensity of the game, and is expected to come out on top in this individual battle.