However, despite struggles at home, the Viola’s European campaign was in full flow. The Tuscan side secured passage to the Europa League knockouts with two games to spare.
The disconnect in fortunes seemed to replicate that of Borussia Dortmund in some sense, with continental competition proving fruitful and the domestic front desperate.
Late that month things would begin to turn around for Fiorentina in the Italian top flight, though the loss of Juan Cuadrado in late January threatened to halt their march.
And the return of Europa League football to the fore with a daunting match up with Tottenham threatened to add only more pressure to a disheartening situation.
But instead of running into a Fiorentina side in a state of flux, Spurs instead found themselves up against an invigorated side that battled to a point in North London.
The Viola weren’t by any means brilliant in the first leg of the round of 32 tie, even if the likes of Mohamed Salah showed flashes and an all-important draw was earned.
Then on Thursday, the second leg rolled around – and Salah clicked into top gear, inspiring Fiorentina past a Spurs side with one eye on the Capital One Cup final.
In an encounter that saw ebbs and flows in terms of who held the advantage, the Chelsea loanee stood head and shoulders above everybody else on the pitch.
Starting on the left side of Fiorentina’s attacking trident, Montella went with a 4-3-3 formation from the off to best make use of the Egyptian’s capacity to create danger.
The Italian coach began the first leg with Salah at wing-back in a 3-5-2, shifting to the 4-3-3 at half-time – and instantly seeing a better return that influenced his tactical choice in the return fixture.
Leaving the majority of the possession to Spurs, Salah clearly had instructions to play on the shoulder of Vlad Chiriches and look to slip in behind the defence.
It was about keeping Spurs on their toes, but didn’t bring any real return. Fioretina simply weren’t able to get him on the ball enough.
By half-time, Salah had only 22 touches, per WhoScored. He had been tidy on the ball by completing 100% of his passes and allowing himself to be dispossessed just once. Yet the best was still to come.
A few minutes before the break, the Egyptian switched flanks with Joaquin, taking up his mantle on the right side and starting to drop a bit deeper to pick up the ball.
When the decisive final 45 minutes began, Salah was immediately more involved. He played no part in the Viola’s opening goal, but was nonetheless the primary source of anguish for Spurs.
Now also able to run at defenders instead of almost exclusively relying on team-mates to play him in behind, the 22-year-old was able to take on greater influence.
The result was that Spurs were put on the back foot against an opponent in possession, not allowed to focus most of their energies on tracking a runner off the ball.
Salah nearly increased Fiorentina’s lead when he was played through on goal by Joaquin, but was thwarted by an excellent save from Hugo Lloris.
Undeterred, he would get his goal after running at Ben Davies, laying the ball off to Mario Gomez, and picking the pocket of a sleeping Jan Vertonghen to smash home.
Impressive was the fact that his work rate didn’t drop once Fiorentina had taken a 3-1 aggregate lead, also holding the advantage on away goals.
The Egyptian showed physicality in using his body well to maintain possession in key areas, taking precious time from Spurs and forcing them to continue respecting the counter.
All told, Salah tallied five dribbles – all of which came in the second half. His 37 touches in the last 45 minutes – compared to 22 in the first half – allowed him to make a greater impact. He misplaced just one pass over the course of the entire game – completing 29 of 30 passes, a 97% clip – underlining his productivity in combination play.
Salah was the difference on a night when the Viola needed a spark to make sure they pressed home the upper hand gained from drawing 1-1 back at White Hart Lane.
Montella demonstrated an astute nature in adjusting his tactics to get the best out of his January signing, and against Premier League opposition no less.
At the Artemio Franchi, Salah has already been given the run of games he never was granted at Chelsea – and given the chance, is showing exactly what he can do.