11th March 2025 | 18:00PM
I had seen some sights of support in my time as a manager in Finland and throughout my time as Fiorentina, but tonight the streets were packed to the brim as the purple bus rode through the city centre of Florence into a cloud of violet, red and white smoke created by flares set off by the deafening fans.
There were grown men kissing the bus as it went past them at a slow pace of twenty miles per hour. The Fiorentina club anthem, La Canzone Viola
was being rebounding across every building in the vicinity and it was Vanni Vezzosi - a youth graduate who had played for Fiorentina since the age of 11 that got the song going on the team bus. Vezzosi stood up from his seat and made his way down to the front of the bus before grabbing a megaphone out of his sports bag, which no one knew he had. He slammed the emergency exit button on top of the bus door and the doors flung open and he stood there with his megaphone:
”O Fiorentina, di ogni squadra ti vogliam regina!” (Oh Fiorentina, we want you queen of all teams)
he screamed into the square of thousands of fans, getting a roaring return of the next verse before the Fiorentina fans began chanting Vezzosi’s name in acknowledgement of ‘one of their own’
I grinned as Vezzosi had the doors shut and he made his way back and as he walked by me I stood up, held him with my arm around his shoulder before bouncing up and down with him, chanting “Alé Alé Viola!”
repeatedly, with each time getting louder and reverberating around the small acoustics of the bus.
With Artemio Franchi stadium looming over us, we exited the bus at our arranged entrance to thousands more fans in a sea of purple. It was a hero’s welcome and we had not even completed a single task yet. That was for me to pull off here.
After signing every autograph I possibly could and surviving the hundreds of camera flashes per second, we eventually made our way into the stadium, with my players walking together, chatting excitedly about the night ahead.
At Camp Nou, we had lost 2-1 to Barcelona in the first leg of the last 16. We had an away goal to use but no matter what, we had to beat Barcelona tonight or face a knockout blow, with not even the Europa League to support us at this point.
11th March 2025 | 18:55PM
My mind had been made up as I welcomed the players back in for a temporary break in their warm-ups out on the playing field with their coaches.
“Nikola [Boskovic], you know your job in goal. In my opinion you’re the best young goalkeeper in the world - get out there and don’t let a single thing past you tonight.
“Same back four as Lazio guys. That’s you Leonardo [Venturelli], Bettella, Amadeu [Neves] and you Lewis [Gibson].
“Rostislav is here tonight to support you lot, he’s absolutely knackered aren’t you? You lazy bugger!” I joked at Hora who was sat in his Fiorentina tracksuit. “That means it’s you, Tom [Mrmic] and Mattias [Svanberg]. You’re in the center tonight. We worked on how we play in training throughout the week. You know what you’re doing.
“Kanté! Another goal from you against these lot tonight and we’re happy aren’t we? You’re on the right. Cristiano [Ronaldo] will talk you through what you’re doing out there tonight. Yannick [Carrasco], you’re starting out on the left tonight. Do what you’ve done all your career and be absolutely unplayable.
“Gutiérrez, you’re playing behind Davide [Merola] tonight. You two know what to do, you’ve done it plenty of times this season and it’s a big reason as to why we’re here in this situation tonight. Lots of interplay, lots of swapping positions, lots of shots.”
I stood still in silence for about five seconds, panoramically looking at every single one of my players in the eyes. “I’ll call you back in here for quarter-to-eight after completing your warm-ups out there for one final chat. Final call is 1950 hours, so don’t be late. Thomas [Jorgensen], Cristiano [Ronaldo]: you OK to take them out for the drills?”
“Course, boss.” Both replied as they clapped their hands together which acted as a signal for the players to stand up in unison and head out onto the pitch.
11th March 2025 | 19:50PM
The Champions League anthem was flooding the stadium and funneling down into the player’s tunnel. Davide Bettella was the captain tonight so he was leading the eleven out onto the pitch, with Nikola Boskovic just behind him as the goalkeeper. With the UEFA officer giving the all-clear for the players to begin the walk onto the pitch, it was a cue for my staff and the seven substitutes to make our way to the dugout.
A sold-out Artemio Franchi had not been seen often in the Serie A or many other competitions this season, but a full 43,000 crowd was present tonight, with over 3,000 Catalonians travelling from Barcelona to watch their star-studded side who had a one-goal advantage going into this tie.
One minute before the kick-off time, Barcelona had come together in their half of the field in a final team huddle as an opportunity for one last piece of motivation. My players were darting to one another before embracing them with a final individual hug before they went to war alongside them. The backdrop provided was a purple cloud, similar to the one seen in the city centre and let off by a pyrotechnic.
Pietro Pellegri had the ball at his feet for a Barcelona kick-off, looking to pass it back to Kai Havertz. I stood on the sidelines with my arms folded, knowing that across the world I would be being broadcasted to millions of people. My opposite number - Unai Emery - took his place in the away dugout to the left of me.
From the very beginning, Barcelona were focusing on attacking our goal in the hope of chalking out our potentially advantageous away goal that Mamadou Kanté scored at Camp Nou. Pogba was steaming forward with the ball in the third minute of play before unleashing a thunderous strike that Boskovic wasn’t particularly concerned about. Nevertheless, Mattias Svanberg was the player I chose to tell off for allowing Pogba to dominate the midfield this early on.
Svanberg appeared to take it on board on the pitch as Pogba was immediately pounced upon his first touch by my Swedish midfielder. In appreciation for his obedience, at the time of the next break in play, Svanberg was encouraged by both me and my assistant manager Thomas Jorgensen.
Carrasco was the closest player to the dugout in the first-half due to his left-wing positioning. Being the most experienced player in the squad and his numerous appearances in big games in Europe like this, having him so close was incredibly beneficial for my management as he was able to accurately take on instructions as well as actively pass on messages to other players.
This was evident just minutes after I had told Yannick to aim for the far post with his crosses. He bombed down the wing with the agility and speed of someone you would expect ten years his junior, beating Sergi Roberto with skill before heading for the byline. Carrasco clipped in a cross to the far post that was inch-perfect and missed the approaching Kanté by millimetres, but still received a rapturous commendation from the Fiorentina fans.
My coach, Bajram Fetai who had joined with me from Oulu last year was keeping track of the match statistics via technology and it was clear to see that Barcelona were still persistent in their attacking. However, I had faith in my team which had only conceded 17 goals in the Serie A this season and in a goalkeeper who has only conceded at least two goals only six times in his career with Nikola Boskovic.
With half-time fast approaching, our Champions League fate was still hanging in the balance. Barcelona were determined to rule out our away goal with a goal here, but they had failed to do so with Pietro Pellegri and Kai Havertz both missing good opportunities inside the box throughout the game.
11th March 2025 | 20:50PM
Half-time was signalled by the referee’s two extended blows on the whistle as both dugouts rose simultaneously onto the turf after Leonardo Venturelli had kicked the ball safely out of the way for a throw-in.
I waited by the door of our changing rooms, slapping each one of my players on the back as they walked through. Once the part-headcount and part-encouragement had concluded I clapped my hands together and began speaking in a softer tone to the squad.
“I’m not making any changes to the players yet. What you lot have given me out there tonight has been good enough so far. We’ve been in situations like this with the likes of Juventus and Milan who have been dominant in their style which allows them to open up a lot of chances, but as always the defence has been remarkably good so far and long may that continue.” The players nodded their heads in agreement.
“Davide,” I said looking over to Davide Merola who was listening eagerly. “You’re going to drag Lenglet a little bit wider. Varnier isn’t quick enough to deal with a gap being opened up on Lenglet’s side and that’s where Wilson [Gutiérrez] will appear. We’ve worked on the signals in training, so when Davide gives the sign or the call then Wilson, you’re going into that pocket left behind. Then the wingers will do their business by cutting inside with their runs or working it out wide for a crossing opportunity. Front four, have you got that?”
“Mattias [Svanberg], poor first couple of minutes but you really did ramp up your performance after that initial mistake allowing Pogba to have a go. Well done, I’m proud of you for acknowledging it, but it’s those lapses of concentration that are going to seriously cost us if we have one too many.” Svanberg smiled in embarrassment of his earlier mistake of allowing Pogba too much time, but in pride of his recovery afterwards.
I had finished handing out my instructions five minutes later and my conclusion was followed two seconds after by a huge rallying cry led by the team captain Davide Bettella. After several thumpings of the dressing room wall, the studs clicked against the stone flooring before Bettella’s war cry in the confines of a small room were translated into a 40,000-strong vociferation of support from the Fiorentina fans.
11th March 2025 | 21:05PM
Davide Merola kicked off the second-half of the biggest game in the past few decades for Fiorentina. Right now in these current circumstances, we only needed one goal to go through. Everyone knew football wasn’t as simple as that, though.
We began the first-half incredibly well with some great chances being opened up for the attacking midfielders thanks to Merola’s positional control over Lenglet. It was like Lenglet was on the strings of our striker but I knew that tactically, Emery would not stand for such manipulation of his defence so we needed to make the most of our current dominance before it was acted upon.
With Emery shouting instructions to his players, which my coach Cristiano Ronaldo kindly translated for me, we saw a shift in the balance of the game once again even in light of knowledge of Emery’s instructions. Barcelona once more had possession in my half and were playing it comfortably around the halfway line.
With Barcelona still in unwavering control, the first substitute was made by Unai Emery as Youri Tielemans came off for Tanguy Ndombele in the 63rd minute. This was followed ten minutes later by Pietro Pellegri being subbed off for Abel Ruiz.
With fifteen minutes remaining, we were still reverting back to the defensive system that has achieved such a defensive record. However, right now we needed to be scoring a goal to stand a chance of going through. It was OK to not be conceding thanks to the defensive tactics, but our attacks were being consistently stopped due to outnumbering thanks to all of our men being held back after defending a prior Barcelona attack.
I looked over to see that Unai Emery was laughing with his staff members. I scowled as my eyes wandered back onto the pitch, angry that he was feeling comfortable enough to find time to have a break from studying the game to have a humorous chat with his staff members on. I looked back towards my bench, realising the need for an attack. However, I wasn’t going to do it conventionally by throwing on any number of attacking players.
Vanni Vezzosi was thrown onto the field of play in the 77th minute. As a left-back, he was a much more energetic and attacking full-back than Lewis Gibson, who he had replaced. Shortly after, Cabecao was subbed on by Barcelona to replace their left-back Maresic.
Five minutes passed and there was no real change in the game aside from one attack which led to a Mamadou Kanté cross fractionally going out of play for a goal-kick. A change in formation was needed and substitutions were required as it was becoming impossible that the game would ever reach extra-time so the need for fresh legs was now.
On-loan defender Nicoló Armini was sent on for Leonardo Venturelli. We went three-at-the-back with Armini, Neves and Cas Maatman, who was also subbed on for our captain Davide Bettella as the armband was passed to Yannick Carrasco. We moved to a 3-6-1 formation with Mrmic and Svanberg remaining in the centre. However, Carrasco was moved inside to join Wilson Gutiérrez as an attacking-midfielder as Vanni Vezzosi was pushed up from left-back to left-wing with limited defensive commitments at this 82nd minute stage.
The changes certainly impacted the flow of the game as despite our defence being stretched wider to deal with Barcelona wingers, the quality of the defence shone through and retrieved the ball at almost every time of asking. Mrmic and Svanberg were now the players with the most of the ball as they became anchormen, spraying the ball out wide to either Vezzosi or Kanté or the alternative of a killer-ball through to Merola.
Despite this increase in attacking, the Barcelona defence were almost impossible to break down. The game stood still at 0-0, the aggregate score being 2-1 to Barcelona - thus sending the Catalans through to the quarter-finals.
I had stood up all game in my technical area, mostly on my own as my coaches studied the game from the bench and they only joined me to offer advice. However, with a Wilson Gutiérrez corner missing every single player in the box and flying out for a goal-kick at the opposite end, I elected to take my seat in the dugout.
The additional minutes amounted to five for stoppages and right now we were three minutes and 37 seconds deep into this time, with Marc-André ter Stegen’s time-wasting in retrieving the ball from Gutiérrez’s corner taking up a lot of this. I shouted to the fourth official, gesturing towards a wristwatch, to which he turned around swiftly but didn’t appear to act on anything.
Ter Stegen was eventually encouraged to hurry up with his goal-kick by the referee. A pump down the middle of the field and into our half was contested between Paul Pogba and Cas Maatman. Our Dutch centre-back leaped into the air, both beating Pogba to the ball as well as causing damage to the tall Frenchman in the aftermath, although some suspected it was an attempt to time-waste further.
Maatman’s defensive header, with no particular direction to it had found itself at the feet of Vanni Vezzosi on the left flank. Sergi Roberto was taken on again in what had been a torrid game for him at right-back against both Yannick Carrasco and now Vanni Vezzosi. Vezzosi surged onto the edge of the area, with Gutiérrez screaming for the ball as he ran diagonally into the box. Vezzosi placed a soft through pass towards the Colombian attacking midfielder.
Gutiérrez took one touch which went four yards in front of him as he accelerated, but on his way towards the second touch of the ball, Marco Varnier approached the player to dispossess him, or at least put him off. He stuck a leg out clearly in the area… Penalty. Gutiérrez had fallen, the crowd erupted in appeals, the screech of the referee’s whistle turned the eruption into silence before a great crescendo of noise upon the realisation of the direction of which the referee’s finger was pointing. He was pointing to the spot.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Thomas Jorgensen, Bajram Fetai, Lewis Gibson and Riccardo Borgarello were leaping off their seats in glee before jumping on my back in celebration. They appeared to be screaming in delight, but I was so focused on the situation that I had become deafened by any other distraction.
Davide Merola looked over to me whilst the Barcelona players hopelessly protested to the referee and Unai Emery was glaring down at the fourth official. I noticed that he wasn’t chuckling with his staff anymore. I tipped my head forward to Merola, giving him the nod to take this historically significant penalty.
We were now entering the 97th minute of play as the Barcelona protests began to diffuse and slowly accept the referee’s decision, with the hope still there that ter Stegen could hold back the brewing tsunami of noise reliant on one kick from Merola’s boot.
I had saved Davide Merola from a terrifyingly stagnant career path at Inter Milan to bring him cheaply to Fiorentina on the assurance of first-team football. His value has risen tenfold since and he is becoming a hero among Fiorentina fans. As he placed the ball gently on the spot, he ignored ter Stegen’s approaches to put him off by turning his back on him and looking over to me straight in the eyes. I saw it then, he had the devilment in his eyes, combined with a wry smile of confidence mixed in with arrogance that only a serial goalscorer could possess. I knew as soon as I saw his expression where this was going.
The referee ushered Marc-André ter Stegen back to his goalline as Merola turned around to face him, to which he was met with an almost demented expression on ter Stegen’s face where his eyes were widened and his tongue was outstretched. Merola sprinted up to the ball, but broke his run-up with a slower run as he was about to hit the ball. Ter Stegen’s body language posed that he was diving to the left. Merola made his decision in that split-second of body shape he saw in front of him.
Everyone in that stadium heard the sound of Merola’s boot hitting the ball it was that silent in Artemio Franchi. The next moment I was dragged by Jorgensen all the way to the corner flag to join Davide Merola’s belly-slide followed up by a team pile-on. Fans were running towards the advertising boards and a fair few managed to join the team in the euphoric celebrations thanks to the limited amount of stewards. With a pile-on of around 15 men, Nikola Boskovic and Alberto Cerri joined the celebrations last and almost crushed all of us.
Perhaps the best feeling of my life had been achieved in this moment. But I will continue. This was just the first taste of my life now.
The maintenance of form is absolutely integral at this point! It's so close and shows no sign of budging anytime soon so this is very likely to boil down to the final day.
Same as I said to LFC about making sure we don't drop many points from here. About the signings, they are very low-risk if they don't pan out how I wish - whereas a bargain if they come out as a huge success. It's win-win really.
The CL group was rather kind compared to what I could have potentially had, but both us and Leipzig did manage to knock out a very recent winner in Valencia!