It has been a sobering month for Italian football. The respective defeats of Juventus and Lazio by Bayern Munich and Fenerbahce mean that the nation has no representation in the semi-finals of European competition for a third season running. Antonio Conte struck a grim note afterwards, the Juventus manager arguing that Serie A teams simply did not have the financial resources to compete with the best in Europe.

Not everyone agreed. Many were quick to point out that, in Juve’s case at least, Conte’s complaint did not stand up to scrutiny; his team’s net spend on transfers is about the same as Bayern’s over the past three years. Others, like the Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, simply rejected such defeatist overtones. “When there are no economic resources to call upon,” he said, “then what you need is new ideas.”

Amid the doom and gloom, the truth is that some fresh thinking is beginning to take hold. Milan have cut their wage bill and put faith in youth, yet still succeeded in challenging for a top-three finish. Udinese, meanwhile, have put forward a new model for stadium ownership, securing a long-term lease of the communally owned Stadio Friuli that will allow them to both upgrade the facility and unlock new revenue streams in future.

Prandelli might also look with satisfaction on the work being done at his former club, Fiorentina. A team which had appeared have slipped into a downward spiral since his departure in 2010 has instead been the revelation of this campaign. Last year Fiorentina flirted with relegation; now they are battling for a Champions League berth.

The numbers provide a striking contrast. At this point last season, Fiorentina were 16th, on 37 points. This time around they are fourth, on 55. That represents the greatest year-on-year improvement of any team in the division. The Viola have won seven more games and scored 26 more goals than they had a year previously.

Statistics alone, though, cannot tell the full story. Fiorentina’s achievements this year are remarkable enough in their own right, but what renders them truly special is the manner in which they have been achieved. Ever since Vincenzo Montella was appointed as manager in the summer, this team’s stated aim has been to not only win games but to entertain while doing so.

“Dignità, Dovere, Divertimento,” runs the family motto of team owners Diego and Andrea Della Valle – “Dignity, Duty, Fun.” It is a mantra to live by, one which both men are fond of repeating and which Diego has had etched (in the abbreviated form “D. D. D.”) onto a plaque in the cabin of his private Falcon jet. Likewise, it seems to have been imprinted on the soul of Montella, the original Little Aeroplane.

“I like that slogan a lot,” Montella told Gazzetta dello Sport in December. He has done more than just pay it lip service. The manager’s dignity in both success and defeat was specifically referenced by the judging panel who awarded him the Enzo Bearzot award as Italy’s best manager for the 2012 calendar year. His behaviour during Fiorentina’s 2-2 draw with Milan earlier this month provided another case in point.

Montella’s team were a goal down against the Rossoneri, and had already lost one starting centre-back, Stefan Savic, to injury, when they had a second, Nenad Tomovic, wrongly dismissed for a foul on Stephan El Shaarawy. The incident occurred just before half-time, yet when Montella ran into referee Paolo Tagliavento in the tunnel during the break he did not rant and rave. Instead he simply smiled and said: “I bet you a dinner that you were wrong about that sending off.” The official happily accepted his offer.

Likewise, Montella’s sense of duty has shone through in the way he talks about his team. He has spoken repeatedly of Fiorentina’s obligations to a city which had become disillusioned since Prandelli’s departure. He has met with supporters at a variety of different events put on by the club to boost fan engagement, and will do so again on Thursday at a pep rally in the city.

Such events have been crucial in re-establishing a bond of trust. Fiorentina’s supporters had become disillusioned with a group of players who seemed to be more interested in living large than winning trophies, and Montella himself was confronted with that reality shortly after he arrived at the club. Property was damaged and two stuffed partridges reported stolen from a restaurant when Alessio Cerci’s birthday party got out of hand in July, but the club’s response was swift. Perceived trouble-makers were moved on and those who stayed reminded firmly of their responsibilities.

Anyone who ever watched Montella play, meanwhile, will know that fun comes naturally. Football might have given him a living but it remains first and foremost his most beloved hobby. Montella’s career began not with an apprenticeship at a leading top-flight club but instead with a trial at non-league Empoli.

“My dad was a carpenter, who understood well what it meant to learn a trade,” Montella told the magazine Sportweek in 2011. “When I was playing in Serie C [for Empoli] and scoring lots of goals without making a penny, he told me to wait and not to ask for any money. ‘Become somebody first,’ he used to say. ‘Make a name for yourself and then the rest will follow.’”

Likewise at Fiorentina, Montella never sought to put the cart before the horse. Asked repeatedly during his team’s bright start to the season what their aims for the season might be, Montella refused to set any fixed targets along the lines of European qualification. “I have a team full of quality footballers,” he said. “The only route we can take is to try to put on a show.”

That they most certainly have. The biggest knock on this Fiorentina team was supposed to be a lack of a natural goal-scorer up front, and yet only two other teams—Juventus and Roma—have found the net more often in Serie A this season. Montella has challenged his team to play expansive football regardless of the opposition. His first-choice starting midfield of Borja Valero, David Pizarro and Alberto Aquilani might be unique in the division for its lack of a so-called “enforcer”.

Great credit is due to the team’s sporting director, Daniele Pradè, himself appointed last May and responsible for an aggressive summer transfer campaign in which Fiorentina signed no fewer than 18 new players. It is a mark of both his judgement and Montella’s management that the combined transfer market value of their squad is estimated by Gazzetta dello Sport to have risen by €35m since the start of the campaign.

The club is in good financial health, and expected to report a small profit for the year 2012 in the coming days. A Champions League berth, however, would allow them to aim even higher going forwards. That is far from unthinkable. Fiorentina remain four points behind third-placed Milan, but the Rossoneri must visit Juventus this weekend.

But the most important sign of the club’s transformation this season is not to be found in the league standings or the balance sheet. Instead it can be found on the stands of the Stadio Artemio Franchi, where attendances are up by more than 20% on last year. A total of 408,000 tickets have been sold across Fiorentina’s 16 home games this season, compared with 326,000 at the equivalent stage in 2011-12.

That figure is all the more remarkable when you take into consideration that preseason ticket sales were at their lowest point in many years. Many supporters were ready to give up on a team which seemed to have done the same. In less than a year, Fiorentina have completely transformed that image.

No individual has done more towards that end than their 39-year-old manager. “Sometimes the lack of awareness that comes with inexperience can be a desirable quality to have,” Montella told Sportweek in 2011, shortly after taking over at Catania. He would lead the Sicilian side to their highest-ever points tally in Serie A.

In Florence he has been naïve enough to believe that an unfamiliar group of players could win games, entertain their fans and challenge for a Champions League berth all at once. Nobody yet has been able to prove him wrong.