Tactical Preview: Who’s Coming Out on Top in the 2023/24 Europa Conference League Final?

The stage is set for the 2023/24 UEFA Europa Conference League Final, and for the third straight time, an Italian team will be vying for the highest honor. The first edition of the competition would see Jose Mourinho’s Roma edge Arne Slot’s Feyenoord 1-0 in the final in Tirana, whilst the second one would see David Moyes’ West Ham prevail 2-1 against Vincenzo Italiano’s Fiorentina in Prague.


Italiano’s side are out for revenge as they look to come away with the award in Athens and claim their first trophy since 2001. They’ll be taking on an Olympiacos side that, despite a disappointing domestic campaign that sees them sit third in the league table, have made history on the international stage. 53 years after Panathinaikos fell to a 2-0 loss to Ajax in the European Cup Final, Olympiacos have become the second Greek team to reach a European final.


Player Analysis: Fran Navarro


Two decades after the Greek national team pulled off one of the greatest upsets in football history by winning the European Championships, Olympiacos have been presented with a golden opportunity to return Greece to the pinnacle of the game. In order to do so, however, they’ll have to get past a Fiorentina side that has made considerable strides since Italiano’s appointment.


La Viola have made it to five European finals in their history, falling to Real Madrid in the 1957 European Cup Final before edging Rangers in the 1961 Cup Winners’ Cup and losing to Atlético Madrid in the following year’s edition. They would have to wait another 28 years to return to the big stage, where they would lose 3-1 to Juventus across the two-legged UEFA Cup Final.


Italiano arrived at a team that had been festering in the lower midtable positions in recent years, narrowly avoiding relegation in 2019 with a 16th-placed finish, rebounding to a 10th-place finish in 2020 before placing 13th in 2021. Fiorentina turned their attention to Italiano, who had guided Spezia to a first-ever berth in Serie A and had even managed to keep them afloat in their debut campaign in the top-flight, and their foresight was quickly rewarded.


He was not Fiorentina’s first choice — they had appointed Gennaro Gattuso in the summer only to part ways after 23 days due to disagreements over transfer policy. Despite losing top scorer Dušan Vlahović midway through the campaign to Juventus, Fiorentina would manage a seventh-place finish and reach the Coppa Italia semifinals only to lose to Juve. For the first time in six years, Fiorentina were back in Europe.


Michael Kayode: Italy’s Future Starter at Right Back?


The following season would see them finish eighth in Serie A and reach the Europa Conference League Final, whilst they would also relinquish an early lead and fall to a 2-1 defeat to Inter in the Coppa Italia Final with Lautaro Martínez’s brace seeing the Nerazzurri claim a second-straight cup title. It looked like they would miss out on continental football, but instead, Juventus’ European ban gave them a reprieve.


Fiorentina haven’t taken that second chance for granted, erasing a first-leg deficit and edging Rapid Wien 2-1 in the home leg, with Nicolás González completing his brace in the 90th minute to secure their spot in the group stage. After commencing their campaign with back-to-back 2-2 draws against Genk and Ferencváros, Fiorentina kicked their season into gear with a 6-0 thrashing of Čukarički, following that up with two straight wins and a draw vs. Ferencváros in order to secure the top spot.


The knockout round began with an instant classic; Mbala Nzola would open proceedings with a goal in the second minute, but Maccabi Haifa fought back and entered halftime with the advantage. It seemed that Fiorentina’s undefeated run in the competition was coming to an end, but Lucas Beltrán tied things up at the hour-mark, only for Anan Khalaily to restore the Israelis’ advantage.


Rolando Mandragora leveled the scoring shortly after, with Maccabi falling to 10 men in the 80th minute as Manuel Cafumana received his marching orders. The two sides looked headed for a stalemate in Budapest until the 95th minute when Giacomo Bonaventura found Antonín Barák for a last-gasp winner. Barák would score again in the second leg, and whilst Khalaily would pull one back in the 88th minute, he wasn’t able to force extra time.


Florin Răducioiu and Stevan Jovetić – Football’s Unlikely Journeymen


Next up was a tie against Czech giants Viktoria Plzeň. After 180 minutes of scoreless football, Fiorentina began to grow in confidence and managed to take advantage of Cadu’s red card in the 66th minute. González put the hosts in the drivers’ seat in the 92nd minute and Cristiano Biraghi sealed the victory in the 108th, ensuring that La Viola would be facing off against Club Brugge in the semifinals.


Riccardo Sottil would give them an early lead, only for Hans Vanaken to equalize momentarily from the penalty spot, but Andrea Belotti’s goal saw them enter halftime on top. They were given yet another golden opportunity as Raphael Onyedika collected two bookings in quick succession, but Club Brugge would respond immediately after and equalize via new Brentford signing Igor Thiago. Once again, they cut it close only to seal the deal in the waning minutes, with Nzola’s 91st-minute winner seeing them prevail 3-2 at the Stadio Artemio Franchi.


Club Brugge would roar back in Belgium, with Vanaken grabbing an early goal for the hosts, but they were nevertheless unable to convert the rest of their chances and formulate the advantage. Instead, an 85th-minute goal from Beltrán would see the Italian side through to the final, with La Viola bouncing back from their Coppa Italia semifinals defeat to Atalanta by booking their ticket for Athens.


As for Olympiacos, after winning three straight league titles, the Greek giants wound up finishing third in 2022/23. They were forced into the UEFA Europa League playoffs, where they made quick work of Genk and Čukarički, but after finishing third in their group behind West Ham and Freiburg, they were relegated to Europe’s tertiary competition.


Tactical Analysis: José Luis Mendilibar’s Sevilla


Four days before their first knockout round match, Olympiacos announced the appointment of José Luis Mendilibar — the club’s eighth manager (including interims) since the start of the 2022/23 season. Mendilibar’s previous spell as manager would see him take charge of Sevilla in March 2023, lead them out of a relegation fight and guide them to the Europa League title, only to receive his marching orders in October after winning just two out of eight league matches.


They took care of business by taking two 1-0 wins against Ferencváros courtesy of goals from Ayoub El Kaabi, but the Round of 16 was far more exacting, with Maccabi Tel Aviv scoring twice in nine minutes. El Kaabi would pull one back shortly after, but the Israeli side would nevertheless come away with a 4-1 thrashing in Greece. It seemed the tie was done and dusted, and yet, Mendilibar’s men had other ideas.


Daniel Podence launched the comeback in the 10th minute, with goals from Kostas Fortounis and El Kaabi seeing them equalize on aggregate before halftime. Eran Zahavi would pull one back from the penalty spot, but El Kaabi would complete his brace shortly after to force extra time, where Stevan Jovetić scored in the 93rd minute after coming off the bench to give Olympiacos their first advantage of the tie. Fellow substitute Youssef El-Arabi would seal the deal in the 103rd minute and ensure a historic comeback in Serbia for the Greek titans.


Their next adventure would see them travel to Birmingham, and once again, their Moroccan striker was at the heart of the action. El Kaabi scored twice within a half-hour, only for Ollie Watkins to pull one back before halftime and Moussa Diaby to equalize in the 52nd minute. A comeback win looked on the cards for Unai Emery’s side, but instead, El Kaabi would restore their advantage immediately from the penalty spot whilst Santiago Hezze added to the advantage in the 67th minute.


L’Orgoglio Del Fiore: How Fiorentina Blossomed under Vincenzo Italiano


El Kaabi delivered once again in Greece, scoring a brace to guide Olympiacos to a 2-0 victory and eliminate the Premier League’s fourth-best team. Having begun his Europa Conference League campaign in February, El Kaabi has already racked up 10 goals in the competition this season, two ahead of second-placed Zahavi and three ahead of third-placed Bruno Petković.


Fiorentina have impressed with a refreshing, possession-heavy style of play that has seen them take points off of Roma, Lazio, Bologna and Atalanta this season and that has taken advantage of a talented squad featuring various veteran performers. Many of these players struggled to perform at a European giant — Andrea Belotti (Roma), Arthur Melo (Barcelona), Cristiano Biraghi (Inter) — but they have found a new lease on life under Italiano.


The German-born, Italian manager has set Fiorentina up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, with Argentine duo Beltrán and González excelling in attack alongside the likes of Nzola and Belotti, whilst ex Juve players Arthur Melo and Rolando Mandragora have held down the fort in midfield. Biraghi, Luca Ranieri, Nikola Milenković, Lucas Martínez Quarta and Michael Kayode are pivotal in defense and have helped to execute La Viola’s high line.


Fiorentina don’t have an attacking superstar like Lautaro Martínez or Victor Osimhen, but they do have a collection of players who can combine in attack and conjure up magic. González is their top scorer in Serie A with 11 goals, followed by Bonaventura (8), Beltrán (6), and Martínez Quarta. As far as the Europa Conference League goes, Beltrán (4) is followed by Ranieri (3), Barák (3) and Nzola (3).


Player Analysis: David Carmo


With regards to Olympiacos, Mendilibar has employed a hybrid of a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 and gotten the most out of various veteran performers including 36-year-old Vicente Iborra, who won four Europa League titles at Sevilla and Villarreal, 28-year-old Wolves loanee Daniel Podence and 29-year-old Gelson Martins — both of whom developed together at Sporting’s academy — 34-year-old Quini, 34-year-old Jovetić.


The Greek titans turned their attention to Portugal in the January window, with Portuguese international Martins arriving from Monaco for €3 million, Chiquinho joining from Benfica for €500,000, André Horta arriving on loan from Braga and Porto duo David Carmo and Fran Navarro making the move on loan as well. These signings have proven crucial for an Olympiacos side that has personified resilience throughout the competition.


Perhaps none have shone brighter than El Kaabi, however. Having spent his entire career in Morocco (minus a two-year spell in China), El Kaabi headed to Europe in 2021 and plied his trade in Turkey, but after the club’s quarters in Antakya collapsed following a massive earthquake, he was forced to find a new club. Following a brief chapter in Qatar, El Kaabi made the move to Olympiacos this summer, where, at 30 years of age, he is playing in a UEFA competition for the first time in his career.


Giacomo Bonaventura’s Indian Summer at Fiorentina


The Moroccan forward has racked up an astonishing 32 goals and 3 assists in 49 appearances for Olympiacos, and he looks set to play a pivotal role for the Erythroleykoi as they seek to become the first-ever Greek side to win a European tournament.


In order to do so, however, they’re going to have to get through a Fiorentina side that has already secured European football for next season and that is looking to put an end to a two-decade trophy drought. All signs point to a pulsating affair on Wednesday in Athens.


By: Brian Guevara / @Brianguevarag

Translated by: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / James Baylis – AMA / Getty