On Thursday evening the only team that has managed to beat Juventus in Serie A this season stood between the Turin giants and the Europa League quarterfinals. Last week's close affair at the Juventus Stadium gave the impression that it was going to be a similarly tight game.
Leonardo Bonucci, Paul Pogba, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente all returned to Antonio Conte's side with respect to the first leg game, and Bonucci had an eventful beginning with an over physical challenge on super sub from the first leg, Mario Gomez in the first minute. Shortly afterwards, Gomez was through on goal, but Bonucci recovered well and did just enough to force Gomez off, whose shot drifted just wide.
It was all Fiorentina for the initial stages of the game, and it wasn't until the 7th minute that Juventus managed to break past the Fiorentina midfield when Tevez and Mauricio Isla combined to set up Llorente whose header was well off the mark.
Juve then resorted to some long ball attempts. Perhaps reecognition of the strength of La Viola's midfield and a tactic that in theory will work with the strenght and height of Llorente and the oncoming runners from midfield. However, none of these resulted in anything of note as Stefan Savic was stuck to Llorente like glue.
The game was starting to become a feisty affair with tackles flying in everywhere. Arturo Vidal and Borja Valero clashed repeatedly. Fiorentina pressed very well leaving the likes of Pogba and Prilo very little time to display their skills on the ball.
As the half progressed Juve appeared content to slow came down by passing it around at the back before Bonucci found Pogba with an excellent long range pass. The Frenchman did brilliantly to chest the ball down but could not provide a finish to match the control.
Long range shots from David Pizarro, Tevez and Pogba followed, but failed to find the net. Gonzalo Rodriguez was then rightly booked for rugby tackle on Tevez as the Argentine tried to break free on the counter attack. A foul that would prove to be crucial later in the game.
Juve continued to have some prolonged spells of possession and the home crows vented their frustration. As the first half wore on the amount of fouls increased and the first half ended aptly with Gomez punished for a push on Caceres
The first incident of note in the second half continued this trend with a foul by Vidal on Juan Cuadrado, as the Colombian closed in on the penalty area. The Chilean was booked, which means he will miss the first leg of the quarterfinal. Chiellini followed suit with a tug on the shirt of the impressive Borja Valero but escaped a booking.
In the 57th minute, Cuadrado had a long range swerving effort well saved by Buffon and two minutes later a towering header from Vidal from an Isla cross was well off the target. We've become so accustomed to Vidal scoring it's now a surprise when he does miss. In the 61st minute, a miscue from Giorgio Chiellini almost led to a Mario Gomez chance. That proved to be the last action of the game for the German as he was replaced by Juve old boy Alessandro Matri.
We were approaching the final third of the game and Pirlo's influence was starting to become more apparent. Fiorentina struggling to hold on to the ball as Pizarro had been replaced early in the second half. At this stage of the game Fiorentina might have been happy to hold out for a 0-0 draw. With players of Juve's calibre on the pitch it was a dangerous game to play.
And so the moment of truth was nigh.
In the 68th minute Llorente was hauled down by Gonzalo Rodriguez on the edge of the box. A second yellow card meant the Argentine would play no further part in the game. Almost three minutes passed and the free kick had still not been taken as Howard Webb struggled to get the Fiorentina wall to move back sufficiently. For most players about to strike a potentially game winning free kick this would have been a distraction. Not so for Il Maestro Pirlo, who duly stepped up and rifled his shot into the top corner giving Neto no chance of saving it.
We've become used to curling, dipped efforts from Pirlo. This effort was pure power. Well, maybe with a bit of technique. Martin Caceres, Bonucci and Chiellini also played a big part in the goal by creating the space for Pirlo to fire his shot into. In a game where neither team had dominated sufficiently or created clear cut opportunities it was inevitable that it would come down to a moment of genius. Advantage Juventus.
Shortly after the goal came Conte's first substitution of the game as Stephan Lichtsteiner replaced Isla. The Swiss international had an immediate impact crossing a dangerous ball into the box which Llorente met with a bullet header only to be denied by Neto. The Pirlo goal had clearly taken the wind out of Fiorentina's sails as Juve began to dominate possession.
In the 88th minute, Dani Osvaldo replaced Llorente and two minutes later his cross set up a Vidal header which looked like it was going to seal the win but to everyone's disbelief it went left and wide.
The game entered its final minute of injury time and another counter attack by Osvaldo led to Tevez almost getting through, but he was thwarted by the impressive Neto. A trailing foot by Tevez and protestation from Neto led to both players receiving yellow cards.
This was the last play of consequence of the game and Howard Webb blew the final whistle. As the camera panned to Pirlo there was no over exhuberance or wild celebrations.
Just handshakes with the officials and pats on the head from his teammates. You get the sense there is a lot more to come from Il Maestro in this competition. Roll on the quarter-finals.
Buffon: 6.5 – Wasn't required to pull off any Superman saves, but dealt with any shots that came at him with ease.
Caceres: 7 – A solid game defensively. Cleared his lines well when required.
Bonucci: 7 – Good to see him back in the side in Europe. His passing ability from the back is a great asset in congested midfield games.
Chiellini: 6.5 – A few errors which could have lead to problems, as well as one or two rash fouls. The least impressive of the back three on the night.
Isla: 6.5 – Did not get forward into threatening positions as much as he would have liked, but when he did got some good crosses in.
Vidal: 7 – Played very well defensively with some great tackles and blocks. Missed a great opportunity to score towards the end of the game.
Pirlo: 8 – Started slowly but his influence grew as the game progressed. His fantastic free kick proved to be the difference on the night.
Pogba: 6.5 – Displayed some impressive touches and skill, but followed up with some sloppy play. His physicality in midfield was a plus.
Asamoah: 6.5 – Did not have much joy going forward but was solid defensively when required.
Tevez: 6.5 – Worked very hard as usual but failed to have a major impact in the final third
Llorente: 6.0 – A quiet performance from the Spaniard who was marshaled well. Did win the free kick that proved vital.
Lichtsteiner : s/v
Conte: 6.5 – This wasn't an overly impressive performance from Juve. Tactically both teams cancelled eachother out and it was a moment of genius that decided it.
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