Having already failed to score in Sunday’s defeat to the same opponent, Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Montella knew he needed a change. With just over 20 minutes left, his team were once again a losing by a single goal at Juventus Stadium against Antonio Conte’s all-conquering side.
With the return leg at home in seven days time, the tactician—who himself displayed an incredible eye for goal during his playing career—decided he’d seen enough from Alessandro Matri and replaced the former Milan striker with Mario Gomez.
The German had failed to score since a double against Genoa back in September, a knee ligament injury ruling him out for five months just two weeks later. He had returned to action in early February, making six appearances during which he managed to take a total of just three shots, looking far from the devastating finisher he was at Bayern Munich.
Yet what he had also become during his final season in Bavaria was a superb substitute, able to come on whenever his team needed a goal and find the back of the net with alarming regularity. With Mario Mandzukic firmly ensconced in the starting lineup, it was a timely reinvention of the player who cost Bayern around €30 million back in 2009.
Take last season’s German Cup semifinal against Wolfsburg where, with only four touches, Gomez scored a hat-trick in just six minutes to seal a 6-1 win. In Turin on Thursday night it would take a little longer—11 minutes passing before Josip Ilicic clipped a ball over the top of the Juve defence.
Angelo Ogbonna failed to intercept, allowing Gomez into the box with the ball at his feet, and the 28-year-old would make no mistake. Confident enough to hold onto the ball until Gigi Buffon committed himself, the striker coolly slotted underneath the goalkeeper to draw Fiorentina level.
The delicate balance of two-legged European fixtures only increased the value of that away goal, a strike that arguably puts the Viola in the driving seat when the two rivals face off again next week. Montella was full of praise after the final whistle, declaring his admiration for Gomez to Sky Italia (h/t Football-Italia) as he told them:
The first touch was wonderful, but also his physique and international experience. Combine all those and you get a world class goal. He could not have chosen a better moment to get back on the score sheet.
The coach could not have been more right about Gomez’s timing, and not only in terms of this match. With injury also denying Fiorentina the services of Giuseppe Rossi, his return to form is essential if the Viola are to finish the season in the same excellent style in which they began.
Among the early challengers to Juve’s domestic dominance, they have faded badly since the end of January, winning just one of their last five league fixtures, scoring just five times in that period. That is undoubtedly something of a slump for a team boasting the fourth most prolific attack in Serie A, and Gomez can certainly be the man to pull them from it.
Robbed of his leading scorer Rossi, Montella has few options but to rely on the German striker with Matri as the only real alternative. Arriving on loan from Milan, the latter made an instant impact, netting twice in a devastating 45-minute debut away to Catania, but he has failed to shine since.
Despite making a further 10 appearances, Matri has added just one goal to his tally at Fiorentina, proving just as profligate as he was at San Siro. Yet according to stats site WhoScored.com, he is averaging 1.9 shots per game for la Viola, proving their excellent midfield is still creating chances for its forwards.
With the gap to third-placed Napoli now 10 points, it is unlikely that Champions League football could return to Florence next season, but if their German front man can capitalise on the excellent play of Borja Valero and Juan Cuadrado, a trophy this term remains a distinct possibility.
With Fiorentina already in the Italian Cup Final and in an excellent position against Juventus, Mario Gomez might just prove decisive.