By Edward Stratmann.
Just when Fiorentina's joyous creative midfielder, Matias Fernandez, was beginning to gain Paulo Sousa's trust and be granted some meaningful minutes, he unfortunately picked the wrong time to get himself sent off for the first time in his footballing career in Europe against Bologna on February 6.
For Fernandez, who's had to be content sitting on the bench and being very much a peripheral figure at La Viola this season, he must have felt like he'd undone so much of his good work.
While this was just the third sending off of the 29-year-old's much storied career, the other two coming for Chile and Colo Colo, considering this is now his 10th year in Europe, it's quite astonishing how long he went without receiving his marching orders.
With Sousa opting to rest key players for the second leg of Fiorentina's Europa League Round of 32 clash with Tottenham, this meant Fernandez was handed a rare start against Atalanta last weekend. And he didn't disappoint, bagging a goal and an assist, in what was quite possibly his best performance all campaign and one that fully justified his manager's selection.
From his trequartusta position, the Chilean's creativity, movement and understanding of space provided a terrific platform for him to shine throughout his side's entertaining 3-2 victory.
The technically sublime Fernandez beautifully evidenced his capacity to produce moments of pure magic, with the most obvious example being his magnificent assist for Cristian Tello's 81st minute goal. Here, after taking a touch inside his own half, he quickly looked up to assess his options and noticed Tello about to embark on a forward run from the half way line. Off one step, Fernandez then launched a scintillating aerial through ball over the top of the Atalanta defence that fell perfectly into the path of the Barcelona loanee, who eventually finished home after two bites of the cherry. With the score at 2-1 prior to this masterful passage, Fernandez's brilliance effectively sealed the contest for Sousa's men.
That wasn't the only time the former Sporting and Villarreal player used his astute passing to great effect, though, as he constantly set up his teammates, using his exemplary vision and guile to link play in the final third, on his way to amassing five key passes.
In addition, his movement also served as a crucial weapon for his side, for he used his aptitude in this regard to effectively manipulate the Atalanta defence. On top of performing subtle switches with gifted left winger Federico Bernardeschi, his ability to find space in and around his marker, Marten de Roon, in dangerous central areas, by subtly drifting to the left and right of him, allowed him to regularly evade the Dutchman's clutches.
Tellingly, just prior to his wonderfully well taken headed goal, his initial movement to the left of De Roon caused confusion amid the Atalanta ranks, forcing center-back Andrea Masiello to step out and mark him. Cunningly, once Fernandez saw the ball cycled out to Tello on the right, he then ducked forward into the space Masiello had vacated to latch onto Tello's cross and score.
On the defensive end, his work was also of high quality. Fernandez pressed well, keeping in line with Sousa's philosophy, dropped back to support his teammates and showed plenty of bite in the tackle. At times he was a tad overzealous in his efforts to win back the ball, which was evidenced by the fact he gave away three fouls, but his manager would've nonetheless been happy with his intent. He did however win a mightily impressive four tackles and make one interception, a clear demonstration of his quality exertions on the defensive end.
While his strong body of work against Atalanta ultimately wasn't enough to grant him a start for Florentia's unfortunate Europa League defeat to Spurs, it did showcase how the set piece specialist can provide a real attacking spark when called upon. Having a player capable of procuring unexpected, barely believable moments of technical excellence, whether by passing or dribbling, ensures he's always a nice man to have on the bench for Sousa if an injection of creativity is needed.
Although the mercurial attacker is prone to inconsistency, on his day he's an absolute pleasure to watch. With Fiorentina gunning for that third and final Champions League spot in the league, the man who's only started seven Serie A games so far, and has come on as a substitute on a further eight occasions, will be looking to contribute as much as he can to help them achieve their goal.
Even if he doesn't start every game, Sousa will know Fernandez is a very handy ace to have up his sleeve for whenever his side need some attacking inspiration to unlock some of the stingy defenses across the league.
The player himself, meanwhile, will just be hoping he'll be given the chance to weave his magic from the outset, and not merely as a super sub.
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