When he returned to manage Fiorentina on Nov. 9, Cesare Prandelli no doubt found a reminder of his best and worst moment from his first spell with the club in La Viola‘s star man and vice-captain, Franck Ribery.
Prandelli, who was named Fiorentina boss again after Giuseppe Iachini’s firing, managed the club from 2005 to 2010. In his final season, Ribery was part of the Bayern Munich side that controversially defeated Fiorentina on away goals to prevent them from reaching the Champions League quarterfinals. Arjen Robben scored a sensational goal to send the German side through to the semifinals on away goals despite losing 3-2 on the night. But the winning goal at the Allianz Stadium, which proved decisive, was a header from Miroslav Klose, who was clearly offside when he finished from close range.
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That Fiorentina have not been back in the competition since and, therefore, have not been able to avenge this error still hurts people at the club. Prandelli even joked upon taking the job that he’d be talking to Ribery about it as soon as possible.
“I haven’t seen him since that Champions League night in Munich where there was that unbelievable robbery,” Prandelli said of the Frenchman back in November. “As soon as I seen him, I’ll tell him he’s a rogue.”
Prandelli’s return to Fiorentina has been underwhelming at best, with three defeats and three draws from his first six matches, but a stunning 3-0 win at Juventus before Christmas, the champions’ first loss of the season, has shown he still has the magic to coax this team back to where they belong in Italy.
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Prandelli spent six years as a player with the Bianconeri from 1979 to 1985 and won three Serie A titles there, as well as the Cup Winners’ Cup and European Cup. Though Fiorentina’s rebuild won’t be easy — they’re 14th with just three wins in 14 games — the confidence taken from their win in Turin will go a long way to helping. It’s true that Juve did go a goal and a man down within the first 18 minutes, but a Fiorentina side bereft of confidence didn’t panic when they suddenly became favourites for the match, showing immense maturity to pull off such a shocking victory.
It wasn’t always this way for the team from Tuscany on Italy’s west coast. Fiorentina were Champions League regulars during Prandelli’s first stint at the club. Since Prandelli’s departure in 2010, Fiorentina have qualified for the Europa League four times, but have been nearer relegation than the continental places since 2017. The hope will be that Prandelli can bring the feel-good factor back to the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
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Despite having failed to qualify for Europe or even come close in recent seasons, the general feeling is that Fiorentina are a sleeping giant packed full of quality and only needing the right manager to get the best out of the players. In wingers Ribery, 37, and Jose Callejon, 33, they boast players with experience of both challenging for and winning the biggest prizes: Ribery won nine Bundesliga titles at at Bayern, as well as the Champions League as part of the Treble in 2013. In all, he won 23 major trophies in Munich. Callejon won a La Liga title at Real Madrid and the Coppa Italia twice with Napoli.
There’s also young talent emerging. Central defender Nikola Milenkovic, 23, has drawn interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs like Manchester United and Barcelona, while playmaker Gaetano Castrovilli, 23, is already an Italy international. The Azzurri have a large number of talented young players at their disposal, but ex-Italy international Antonio Cassano recently said he felt Castrovilli was the one who would go on to have the best career from what he has seen so far.
Christian Kouame, 22, impressed at Genoa, where he linked up well Krzysztof Piatek, and Sofyan Amrabat, 24, was the heartbeat of the Verona team that finished ninth last season. Perhaps the player with the most to gain from Prandelli’s arrival is 20-year-old attacker Dusan Vlahovic given the ex-Italy boss’ impressive record at getting the best out of centre-forwards. Adrian Mutu, Adriano, Alberto Gilardino, Luca Toni and Stevan Jovetic all enjoyed some of their best seasons under Prandelli’s stewardship, while he’s also the national team manager who arguably got the best return from Mario Balotelli and Cassano.
Mutu, who played under some of the game’s best managers at clubs like Chelsea and Juventus, singled out his former Parma and Fiorentina manager as the most important of his career.
“I think Prandelli was a mentor not just for me, but for every player he coached,” Mutu said in 2016.” Other great tacticians I worked with included [Claudio] Ranieri, [Fabio] Capello, [Marcello] Lippi, [Jose] Mourinho. They have different methods compared to Prandelli’s. They worked with great teams and they didn’t need to explain too much; they didn’t go into detail with me the way that Prandelli did.”
In 2014, Gilardino was bitterly disappointed at not being included in Prandelli’s Italy squad for World Cup, but still reserved praise for their time together.
“I expected a phone call from him,” Gilardino said of Prandelli at the time. “I thought we had a different relationship to that after six or seven years together. It didn’t happen but I don’t bear a grudge, my opinions of him remain the same. At Parma he transformed me into a footballer. He showed me how to move in the penalty area and be decisive. However, I am certainly disappointed by his behaviour.”
Prandelli may have been out of the game for a long time, having not lasted longer than a year in any role since leaving Italy in 2014, and his underwhelming start to life in Florence will not have got too many pulses running, but in comparison to Montella and Iachini, he has a much more impressive footballing resume.
Prandelli is also one of football’s nice guys. After impressive spells at Atalanta and Parma, he got his big break at Roma, but stepped down to care for his ill wife. He is an outspoken advocate of anti-racism measures in Italian football. In 2013, he praised the AC Milan forward Kevin-Prince Boateng for walking off the pitch following abuse and five years on, said he wanted to hug all the victims. During this time as Italy manager, he also called for an end to the “taboo” against gay people in football and said homophobia was a different type of racism.
After walking away from the Roma job, his next role was as manager of Fiorentina and he took the club from a side that had just returned to Serie A after bankruptcy to Champions League regulars. In Luca Toni, he had a strike who outscored everyone in Europe to win the Golden Shoe in 2005-06, while he also created the fantastic strike partnership of Mutu and Gilardino at both Parma and Fiorentina.
One of his highs in Florence was undoubtedly winning home and away against Liverpool in the Champions League as they topped their group, eliminating Rafa Benitez’s side, en route to their bitter exit at the hands of Bayern in 2010.
Later that year, Prandelli left to take the Italian national team job and, led by a superb Balotelli, took an unfancied Azzurri side to the final of Euro 2012 where they were beaten by Spain. He left the role after Italy were eliminated at the group stage of the 2014 World Cup and became somewhat of a nomad, with short spells at Galatasaray and Valencia before he moved to Dubai to take charge of Al-Nasr. Prandelli returned to Serie A with Genoa in December 2018 but left seven months later, with this his first job since.
It seems almost bizarre to think of Fiorentina as a side challenging for the Champions League until you look at Atalanta’s success in the past few seasons and ask yourself: why can’t the Tuscan side do it? Fiorentina are a team ready for European football, just waiting for the right leadership. Sassuolo are in the mix this season, while Verona are also within touching distance of the top six. Why can’t Fiorentina join them?
La Viola are a huge club with a demanding fan base, but Prandelli has shown he can handle the pressure and remains their longest-serving manager. Fiorentina’s U.S. president Rocco B. Commisso has been patient with managers so far, giving both Montella and Iachini more time than most would have. And with the right support from above, perhaps Prandelli will finally forgive Ribery if, together, they can bring European football back to Fiorentina.