After seeing Juventus almost exclusively lead the way for the past four years, having someone else sitting atop the Serie A table in recent weeks has been refreshing for fans of Italian football.
The Bianconeri had previously been relentless in their dominance of the division, but now the likes of Napoli, Inter and Fiorentina are enjoying their chance to set the pace. But if the first two clubs have invested heavily in some household names, the latter is doing so without many of their familiar faces.
Giuseppe Rossi is continuing his steady return to fitness, while this past summer saw the Tuscan club part ways with Mohamed Salah, Alberto Aquilani, Joaquín and Mario Gómez. Captain Borja Valero has continued to direct proceedings from the middle of the pitch, and Nikola Kalinić – signed in the summer from Dnipro – has been in irrepressible form.
The former Blackburn Rovers striker leads the side with seven goals, but the man just behind him in attack has been no less important, with Josip Iličić becoming essential to success enjoyed by Paulo Sousa’s men. He joined La Viola back in August 2013, but struggled to replicate the devastating impact he displayed during his time with Palermo after the switch to the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
Indeed, that was the same window which saw Rossi and Gómez arrive at the club, and while Iličić was the least heralded of the trio, he had already made quite an impression on Italian football. He first came to prominence with Maribor, facing off against Palermo in the Europa League just a few weeks after moving there for just €80,000.
Netting against the Sicilians, he caught the eye of Sporting Director Walter Sabatini, who brought him to Serie A immediately, handing over €2.2 million in order to complete the deal. That was in 2010, and Iličić would net against reigning champions Inter on only his second appearance, following that up with goal past Juventus in their very next fixture.
“It’s still hard to believe,” the man himself said at the time, “everything is happening so fast!” It clearly took him very little time to settle into life with Palermo, and he credits then-team-mate – and former Middlesbrough striker Massimo Maccarone – with helping him, as the two men chatted regularly in English.
But the sale of Javier Pastore to Paris Saint-Germain and Palermo’s constant managerial changes would see Iličić fall from the spotlight, eventually unable to prevent the Rosanero suffering relegation to Serie B. That meant, after links to some of Europe’s top clubs, his move to Fiorentina went somewhat under the radar, but that appears to be much more to his liking.
“I have ambitions,” he would tell a Slovenian reporter back in 2012. “I want results and the titles which may make someone a superstar, but that’s not for me.” Repeatedly linked with a move to Arsenal in years past, Tuscan newspaper La Nazione believes the 27-year-old refused to join Tottenham back in August, instead preferring to continue with Fiorentina.
Sousa and the club’s supporters must be glad he made that decision, seeing him weigh in with six goals and three assists in his first twelve appearances of the new campaign. His best performance was arguably in the top of the table clash with Inter, a game that ended with the Viola running out 4-1 winners in Milan as Roberto Mancini’s men had no answer for Iličić.
Netting a third minute penalty, his only other shot was saved by international team-mate Samir Handanović, with Kalinić pouncing on the rebound to double their advantage. The two would combine again before full-time, Iličić providing the assist for what would be a hat trick goal for Kalinić. He also completed an impressive 63 of 66 pass attempts (95.5%), while proving to be a constant source of torment for the Inter defence.
“I’m glad I stayed here,” he would say in an interview with Radio CRC, and there is little doubting his importance under Sousa, who has asked his attacking players to do more defensive work and pressure the opposition. Iličić has shone in that system, and he will hope to carry his impressive form into the international arena as Slovenia face Ukraine in a playoff for a place at Euro 2016.
“He always makes the difference,” the Portuguese boss told Sky Italia recently, and in current for it seems impossible to argue with that notion, with Iličić now indispensable to Fiorentina.
Read more from Serie A expert Adam Digby