Pitchside Europe

Montella’s Viola underscore credentials in Milan

Montella directs traffic as his Fiorentina side defeat Milan at the San Siro

Night had long since fallen on Florence when a train pulled sleepily into the city's Santa Maria Novella station on Sunday. The platform was packed not with commuters, but  supporters.

There were around a thousand of them, waving purple flags and singing songs. They had assembled to welcome a triumphant Fiorentina back from Milan.

Not everyone had made the return trip. Some, including coach Vincenzo Montella, had decided to stay in Milan ahead of the international break. After yet another impressive result, is it any wonder there's talk of him one day being based there on a permanent basis? It's certainly not without justification. Nor is it without foundation.

On the eve of Fiorentina's visit to San Siro, Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani revealed: "I like Montella. He makes teams play like the president [Silvio Berlusconi] wants."

That he most certainly does. At times last season, his Catania side played the most beautiful football in Italy. Rather flatteringly they were compared with Barcelona.

It would make Montella smile. Not to mention shake his head. "Come on," he said. "We just want to play football. And entertain."

Of course, since taking charge of Fiorentina, they too have been heralded as "the most Spanish of the Italian clubs." And with a midfield of Alberto Aquilani, Borja Valero and David Pizarro it's not hard to see why.

Each member of the trio played a big part in Sunday's 3-1 win at Milan, as Montella went up even further in Galliani's, Berlusconi's and everybody else's estimations. Aquilani, making his first start since May, scored the opener, refusing to celebrate against his former club.

An Ivan Cuadrado throw-in, headed on by Luca Toni was shockingly defended, as Philippe Mexes and Riccardo Montolivo, both got drawn to Valero at the near post, leaving Aquilani to pick up a miscontrol from Adem Ljajic totally unmarked and also unable to miss in the middle of the box.

Milan had a chance to get back into the game after Facundo Roncaglia was adjudged to have pushed Alexandre Pato over in the area. The Milan No.9, without a goal in Serie A in almost a year, stepped up for the penalty but then skied his spot-kick into the Curva Sud.

He was whistled by his own fans and taken off at the beginning of the second half for Giampaolo Pazzini. Before then, however, Fiorentina extended their lead, profiting once more from Milan's quite incredible inattentiveness at throw-ins.

Fiorentina are known to place a particular emphasis on set-pieces - Montella brought a guru named Gianni Vio with him from Catania who has published papers on hundreds of dead-ball schemes - but this was something else.

Manuel Pasqual was allowed to square the ball from the left flank to Valero on the edge of the box. He then ghosted past Montolivo who had to do nothing to then evade Mexes and find himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Christian Abbiati. 'Muchas Gracias," he seemed to say, as he prodded a shot into the far corner.

It was Valero's first goal in Serie A and while hardly a tap-in, he won't score an easier one. Fiorentina were worth their 2-0 lead.

They came under pressure in the first 25 minutes of the second half. Pazzini pulled a goal back for Milan, following up a back-heel from Mexes that had come back off the post and into his path to score his fifth goal in six league games against his old club. But Fiorentina never really looked like losing the game.

Mounir El Hamdaoui put the result beyond any doubt by opening up his body and curling a wonderful shot into the top corner from outside the box three minutes from time. It was a strike worthy of the win. And Fiorentina's fourth in a row also sees them fourth in Serie A.

"What impressed most of all wasn't so much the victory but the conviction with which they sought it," wrote the great Gianni Mura in La Repubblica.

"Beating Milan, [especially] this Milan, isn't an achievement in itself. Five teams have already managed it this season. The achievement here, and it bears Montella's signature, is that of giving style and substance to a team that has been totally renewed in such a short space time."

The malaise that descended on Fiorentina following Cesare Prandelli's decision to take the Italy job in 2010 has finally been lifted. The pampered prima donnas, so memorably described by Gabriele Romagnoli in La Repubblica as being no more motivated than "Persian cats on cushions" have been kicked out.

Fiorentina's Iglesias Valero shoots to score a second goal against AC Milan

A new director of sport, new coach and 18 new players have made for a new team and, as a consequence, a renewed sense of purpose and ambition. Fiorentina are a renaissance club.

They are 11 points better off than they were at this stage last season. Only Inter have shown a greater margin of improvement. In the last 15 years, just two Fiorentina sides have had more points after 12 league games.

They were Giovanni Trapattoni's Gabriel Batistuta and Manuel Rui Costa vintage, one of the best in the club's history, who were crowned winter champions in 1998-99, and then of course Prandelli's 2005-06 team, inspired by Luca Toni and a 31-goal season that won him the European Golden Boot.

Toni returned to Florence this summer on a free transfer, answering the call of an old friend to lead the line again after Dimitar Berbatov had left them in the lurch. He is well-placed to draw comparisons between Prandelli's and Montella's Fiorentina.

"We breathe the same air," Toni explained to Il Corriere della Sera. "I see the same desire in people to get back to certain levels again. Back then, Fiorentina were coming off a fight for survival from relegation. Now we're coming off two negative seasons. Today, like then, there's fertile ground to work with." Indeed, there is.

Further to the midfield mentioned above, Fiorentina have a defence that's the envy of Italy. It's the best in Serie A along with those of Juventus and Napoli.

That's in part because their ability to keep the ball is so good that opponent's have little opportunity to score. "Go and watch Fiorentina's games," recommended Genoa coach Gigi Delneri. "You'll see it's almost impossible to get a shot on goal."

Their brand new back-line, assembled at a cost of just €3.5m, deserves credit too. Emiliano Viviano, the goalkeeper, grew up in Fiesole and is a Fiorentina fan. Roncaglia, brought in on a free from Boca Juniors, has become a cult hero with fans adapting Chuck Norris jokes to him in recognition of his hardman status. One goes like this: "When Facundo is hungry, it's the fridge that has to go out and do the shopping."

With a strong defence and a virtuoso midfield, the concern for Fiorentina this season, particularly after Berbatov jilted them, was that, while they genuinely look likely to be this year's Udinese and challenge for a place in the Champions League, they lack the equivalent of Antonio Di Natale, a Capocannoniere capable of scoring more than 20 goals.

Toni can't be expected to reach those heights again. Nor does El Hamdaoui offer those sort of guarantees. Even so, Fiorentina went to Milan without their injured top scorer Stevan Jovetic and still managed to score three goals.

"Our greatest victory is our play," insisted director of sport Daniel Prade, whose role in appointing Montella, not to mention signing Aquilani and Pizarro, owes a great deal to working with them in his previous post at Roma.

It has proven an inspired choice. Montella, still only three years Toni's senior, has at 38 established himself as one of the brightest minds in Italian football. In his caretaker stint at Roma, he secured qualification for Europe and won a Rome derby in difficult circumstances.

At Catania he achieved the club's best points total since their return to Serie A six years ago. Now, with Fiorentina, there's the hope that he will guide them to a top six finish and, maybe, at a push, a place in the Champions League.

"It's perhaps the strongest Fiorentina I've played for," claimed Pasqual who, with Toni, was also a member of Prandelli's high flying sides of the mid-to-late 2000s. "It's definitely the most fun. We won't lose many games playing this way."

In the meantime, Galliani and Berlusconi will no doubt continue to monitor the rise of Montella's star with close attention. The prospect of a serious approach being made, listened to and accepted in the short-term appears impossible. More success might be had at the end of the season.

It wouldn't be the first time that Milan lured a coach away from Fiorentina. The suspicion that they'd reached a private agreement with Fatih Terim in the middle of the 2000-01 season partly precipitated a clash with his then employer at Fiorentina Vittorio Cecchi Gori and led to his dismissal before the end of a great campaign.

Terim, as it happened, did then move from the Artemio Franchi to San Siro, but the prospect of history repeating itself, at least for now, seems unlikely.

Fiorentina chairman Andrea Della Valle saw "no mischief" in Galliani's praise of Montella. Milan have also since confirmed that Massimiliano Allegri will not be sacked.

The expense of paying off a contract they renewed until 2014 is one reason. Another is the absence of a realistically gettable outstanding candidate to replace him in the immediate future, although with a trip to Napoli and the visit of Juventus on the horizon the issue may well be forced.

If it is, Montella, it seems, won't be following in Terim's footsteps. "[Galliani's compliments] make me proud but I have a contract and I am very happy here."

The Aeroplanino flies high, but he's going nowhere. "Montella," Fiorentina fans sang on the platform of Santa Maria Novella station on Sunday night, "is one of us."

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

Follow @JamesHorncastle