Jovetic grows into the face of Fiorentina

Posted by Michael Cox

In the majority of Europe's major tourist destinations, replica football jerseys on sale are geographically unspecific -- it's "Messi 10" and "Ronaldo 7" across the board, regardless of which country you're in.

In stark contrast, Florence remains refreshingly purple. There are a few Inter jerseys with Diego Milito's name on the back, and manufacturers have been quick to knock up Mario Balotelli's name and number on Milan's rossoneri stripes, but Fiorentina's famous "viola" shirt still dominates -- perhaps as distinctive a footballing colour you'll find in Europe. It's impossible to miss.

On the back of the majority of these jerseys is one player's name -- Stevan Jovetic. The Montenegrin has long been viewed as Fiorentina's most talented player, but this season he's assumed an even more pivotal role in the hearts of supporters. Such were Fiorentina's struggles last season, there were sweeping changes to the squad: almost a 90 percent turnover, including the January additions. Few long-serving players remain, and while Jovetic doesn't wear the armband -- that honour falls to trusty, if limited, left back Manuel Pasqual -- he's the player everyone expects to lead Fiorentina's charge.

Fiorentina are one of those clubs that seem to insist upon a prolific central striker. In the same way that Newcastle's No. 9 shirt has been worn with great distinction by the likes of Jackie Milburn, Malcolm McDonald and Alan Shearer, and Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente follows in the footsteps of Pichichi and Telmo Zarra up front, Fiorentina always have one major striker. Oddly, all three are one-club cities with a proud local identity.

Gabriel Batistuta remains Fiorentina's most celebrated striker in living memory. He scored so many goals that supporters erected a statue of him, which was unceremoniously torn down when he defected to Roma in 2000. The season after he left, Enrico Chiesa enjoyed a brilliant campaign when he challenged for the Capocannoniere, and even when Fiorentina were declared bankrupt and effectively demoted to the fourth division, lower-league specialist Christian Rigano -- the only player the new club paid for upon their reformation, with the rest of the squad signed on free transfers -- was a sensational penalty-box poacher. More recently, Luca Toni won the European Golden Boot at the club, while fellow World Cup-winning striker Alberto Gilardino was briefly ruthless in Florence.

Jovetic is a different case. Unlike those players, he's not a natural No. 9 -- in fact, the "8" on the back of his shirt looks strange displayed at market stalls across the city, as it's hardly the most iconic number -- but he's increasingly thriving in their position. Coach Vincenzo Montella, once a superb striker himself, has two formats for his side. Favouring a 3-5-2 system, he can either play Jovetic behind a central striker (often Toni, having returned to the club after six years away), or he can field Jovetic up front with a more creative player behind.

There were already suspicions that the latter suited Fiorentina better, especially in games against strong opposition, and Sunday night's superb 4-1 victory over Inter supported that theory. Jovetic was supported primarily by the tricky, wayward but occasionally exceptional fellow Slavic attacker Adem Ljajic, who drifted around between the lines, playing quick one-twos with teammates to get into goal-scoring positions. Jovetic played as the primary striker, dropping deep away from goal to collect possession, but also doing traditional centre forward things like battling with Andrea Ranocchia to challenge for long balls downfield, and darting to the near post when the ball was played wide.

Jovetic and Ljajic were sensational -- two goals apiece, and Fiorentina could have won by more. They recorded 11 shots on target before Antonio Cassano's late potshot sneaked past Emiliano Viviano and went in off the post, for an Inter consolation.

But Jovetic was inevitably the star. It's slightly surprising that the main striking role suits him -- like Luis Suarez or Sergio Aguero, he's more than simply a pure finisher and can help his teammates in build-up play. For Fiorentina, however, there's no need for him to help create chances, as Montella has assembled a remarkable side that often features four playmakers. In addition to Ljajic, Borja Valero and Alberto Aquilani shuttle forward from midfield, while David Pizarro sprays diagonal passes from his Pirlo-esque deep-lying regista role. Valero set up another goal Sunday night, going into second place in Serie A's assist table behind Marek Hamsik, while Aquilani recorded two, including one for Jovetic with an extravagant backheel.

With those four in the side, Jovetic's best position is up front. He's developed physically, to suit the demands of playing up front in Serie A -- he was once a gangly, slender player with supple hips and a change of pace. Now, since his return from the cruciate ligament injury that forced him to miss the entire 2010-11 campaign, he seems more powerful and sturdy.

"Tonight I played as a centre forward, which in general I don't like as much," he admitted. "But I did pretty well, I scored two goals and am very happy."

His happiness is apparently paramount to his performance. In the build-up to the game, Sinisa Mihajlovic, who coached Fiorentina until last season, remarked upon Jovetic's recent poor form. "Jovetic is a sensitive guy and it's fundamental you know how to deal with him. As with all great champions, he needs to feel important," he said. "I consider Jovetic to be one of the best players in Serie A, but right now he is not playing at his level. I am no longer in Florence, so I cannot say for sure what the problem is. It's evident he is suffering because of something and if things don't change I think he'll leave at the end of the season."

The issue of Jovetic's departure won't go away. Fiorentina are in the second tier of Italian football, rather than one of the true big boys, and they've sold plenty of star names in the past. But losing their best player wouldn't be a disaster now -- for the last couple of seasons Fiorentina relied heavily upon Jovetic's talents; they were too dependent upon one injury-prone player at the expense of squad harmony and cohesion. Now Montella has created such an exciting, harmonious side comprising like-minded technical individuals that Fiorentina could afford to lose him, assuming they replaced him wisely; their recent recruitment has been sensationally successful.

Jovetic will be in demand this summer, and if his best position is in question, his raw quality is not, and the Montenegrin has the potential to play for any of Europe's elite clubs. Nowhere else, however, will he be worshipped to the extent he is in Florence.

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