Having just lost the first leg of their Coppa Italia tie with reigning league champions Juventus, Antonio Conte’s men arrive at Stadio Artemio Franchi just two points from the summit – with the hosts now looking safe and stable at 12th place in the standings.
Leading the Inter line alongside Alexis Sanchez in the rare absence of Romelu Lukaku in midweek, new dad Lautaro Martinez celebrated in style by opening the scoring against Juventus at San Siro. However, the Bianconeri then demonstrated their re-found resilience to ultimately take a 2-1 lead back to Turin ahead of next week’s second leg.
With all still to play for, despite that chastening defeat in their own back yard, the Nerazzurri return to league action on Friday evening fully focused on reaping a fourth win from five top-flight outings.
Despite trailing stadium-sharing rivals AC Milan by a couple of points – a gap which has narrowed significantly in recent weeks – their 49 goals scored (at an average of 2.23 per game) leads the way in Italy and represents one of the best returns in the top five European leagues. Furthermore, a tally of 23 Serie A goals conceded is bettered only by Napoli.
Antonio Conte’s outfit have lost only once on the road so far and have very recent experience of winning on Florentine turf, with a 2-1 cup triumph in January’s last-16 tie at the Franchi seeing them stay on track for a potential first domestic double since the Jose Mourinho era.
The return of top scorer Lukaku post-Coppa Italia suspension – a ban enforced due to his now infamous confrontation with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the previous round – will be warmly welcomed by Conte, who is all too aware that much of his game plan rests on the Belgian’s broad shoulders. Without his nous, experience and vastly-improved hold-up play, Inter can look relatively lightweight up front – and will continue to do so, as a much-touted Alexis Sanchez-Edin Dzeko swap failed to materialise by the close of the transfer window.
Even lacking further reinforcements to a well-stocked squad of seasoned professionals, ever-demanding coach Conte will expect his current charges to set about the much-improved Fiorentina defence with characteristic zeal this weekend.
Since Cesare Prandelli’s arrival in late autumn, Fiorentina have gained in structure and defensive discipline but last time out, against struggling Torino, it was the descent of red mist which cost them all three points.
Franck Ribery’s brilliantly worked goal came between two entirely merited dismissals for the Viola, with first Gaetano Castrovilli then Nikola Milenkovic – for a gratuitous headbutt on Andrea Belotti – being sent off. Soon after the Serb defender’s exit, Belotti snaffled an overdue goal to equalise for the grateful Granata.
Having finished the game with just nine men – subsequent suspensions are poised to disrupt Prandelli’s plans for the visit of Inter – it was an ill-disciplined climax to a fixture they were perhaps favourites to win.
Since Ribery has joined Dusan Vlahovic up front, Fiorentina have offered a more pronounced threat in the final third, but still have issues to resolve at the back in both the short and medium term.
Last week’s ‘bad boy’ Milenkovic has already refused a contract extension and will most likely be sold this summer to one of several high-profile suitors, while captain German Pezzella could be on the way out too, after recent errors have come amid talk of the club withholding a new deal.
As veteran Martin Caceres is also tipped to exit and has played a more peripheral role this term, the Viola may have only the younger breed – including Igor, Lucas Martinez Quarta and Luca Ranieri (currently on loan at SPAL) – left as candidates for Prandelli’s favoured back three.
More immediately, the Tuscan side must get to grips with an Inter team full of determination to fight for the title – and the Milan giants are unbeaten in seven Serie A games against them, with their last defeat coming in a memorable 5-4 home win for Fiorentina in April 2017.