It was only this time last year that Fiorentina were breathing heavy sighs of relief, having narrowly escaped relegation to Serie B. Up until the last couple of games of the season the viola were perched precariously above the bottom three, with only a late rally ensuring they finished in mid-table. 12 months and a fourth-place finish in Serie A on, and Fiorentina’s situation is barely recognisable.
The club hierarchy was shocked into action after witnessing Fiorentina’s close shave, and acted quickly to arrest the slide which had started ever since Cesare Prandelli departed to take charge of the Italian national team in 2010. Last summer they made a string of fantastic signings, spending the best part of €30 million, while -- thanks to Delio Rossi’s regrettable touchline bust-up with Adem Ljajić -- installed one of Italy’s most promising young coaches, Vincenzo Montella, at the helm. After things started well, they consolidated with the impressive capture of Giuseppe Rossi in January.
But while collectively Fiorentina seemed to spend a lot, a fair chunk of their signings individually were made to look stupidly cheap. Experienced international Alberto Aquilani probably enjoyed the best season of his career after arriving for a knockdown €2 million, while his midfield partner David Pizarro joined on a free transfer. The arrival of centre-back Stefan Savić from Manchester City meant that the impact of Matija Nastasić’s departure was minimal. The real stars of the team, Borja Valero and Juan Cuadrado, arrived for a combined €8 million (cheap, even despite Cuadrado initially arriving on a loan fee).
These signings are indicative of how well a previously-rudderless viola have implemented a cohesive transfer strategy since the arrival of sporting director Daniele Pradè last May. Strengthening key weaknesses in the squad and blending youth and experience, the new team gelled instantaneously and seamlessly. They didn't focus on quantity and neglect quality; they got both. Previously the possible departure of the viola golden boy Stevan Jovetić had Fiorentina fans looking terrified. Now, he’s not even the most indispensable player in the squad.
The latest sign of Fiorentina’s progress, both as an on-field force and as masters of the transfer mercato, is agreeing to sign striker Mario Gómez from Bayern Munich. The team that finished 13th in Serie A two seasons ago is now the home of one of the best strikers in Europe over the last few years. It probably means Jovetić is heading out of the Artemio Franchi, though after a relatively quiet previous season, selling him now may be for the best. After all, Fiorentina learned the perils of holding onto an unhappy player a couple of seasons ago, when captain Riccardo Montolivo was a shadow of his former self before his move to AC Milan.
Even if Jovetić does leave, Montella still has an embarrassing wealth of attacking options to field, and boasts a squad that should be aiming to challenge for the title next season. It wouldn't be at all surprising to see him experiment with a centre-forward duo of Mario Gómez and Giuseppe Rossi, deviating from the 4-3-3 he tended to favour last season. If the latter can reach full fitness after his long injury layoff -- his three appearances at the end of last season were his first since October 2011 -- then there's no reason why he couldn't strike up a partnership with his new teammate. With Gómez one of the best pure goalscorers in the world and Rossi a mobile complete forward, it is, on paper, a mouthwatering attack.
Then there's the rest of the team. Wingers Juan Cuadrado and Adem Ljajić (with Ljajić recently linked with a move to AC Milan) were two of the best offensive players in Serie A last season, with their attacking midfield reinforced by the addition of Joaquín from Málaga this summer. Deeper, their central trio of Pizarro, Aquilani and Borja Valero is wonderfully creative, while the recent arrival of Massimo Ambrosini on a free transfer from Milan -- another example of Pradè's eye for a bargain -- isn't glamorous, but certainly adds defensive steel.
The back five is perhaps the least convincing area of the entire squad, especially now goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano won't be returning to the Artemio Franchi. But, with centre-backs Gonzalo Rodríguez and Stefan Savić individually putting in good performances last season, even defensively Fiorentina are hardly in a desperate situation. Regardless, there's still weeks of the transfer window remaining, and more than enough time for the viola to patch up remaining weaknesses.
After being pretty unfortunate to only finish fourth last season, early signs suggest the viola are ready to make a serious challenge for the Scudetto this time around. With Juventus and AC Milan also enjoying excellent transfer summers -- as well as he ever-unpredictable Napoli -- they face stiff competition. But make no mistake about it, Fiorentina are back, and have the potential to push their rivals to the wire, with or without Jovetić.