Games against Fiorentina are always weird. For fans of La Viola, the Juventus fixtures are death struggles. Winning one, like they did in Florence last January, is a supreme accomplishment, something that can salvage an otherwise lost season.
For Juventini, on the other hand, Fiorentina really isn’t more than a minor annoyance. Their fervent hatred of the Bianconeri makes beating them satisfying, but in terms of rivalries they’re solidly behind the likes of Inter, Torino or Milan. Heck, even Napoli games tend to carry more weight in terms of emotion than a tilt with the Tuscans.
What was even more weird was the timing of this fixture: a Wednesday evening at the start of a tricky slate of fixtures that includes the Turin derby, a Champions League tilt and a trip to an Atalanta team that has hit a purple patch after a rough start. Adding even more to the situation is the fact that since the game against Chievo on Sept. 9, Juve will have played a game every three days — and will continue to do so until the international break begins after their trip to Bergamo on the first day of October.
That’s why it wasn’t any surprise that Massimiliano Allegri gave Gianluigi Buffon the day off in goal and heavily rotated the defense and midfield — and why it was inversely extremely surprising that he didn’t do the same with the front four. Gonzalo Higuain, Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado all started, with Blaise Matuidi and a hungry Rodrigo Bentancour holding down the midfield. Daniele Rugani was the only holdover from the back four against Sassuolo and he was joined in the middle by Andrea Barzagli, deputizing as captain, while Kwadwo Asamoah and Stefano Sturaro held down the fullback spots and Wojciech Szczesny starting in goal.
Fiorentina coach Stefano Pioli matched Allegri’s 4-2-3-1 with one of his own. The excellent Marco Sportiello started between the sticks, directing a defense of Vincent Laurini, German Pezzella, Davide Astori, and Cristiano Biraghi. Milan Badelj and Jordan Veretout formed the midfield pivot, with Federico Chiesa, Marco Benassi, and Cyril Thereau supporting Giovanni Simeone in attack.
Juve started the opening phases of the game with the lion’s share of possession, passing quickly and calmly as Fiorentina tried to press them. They replied in kind when on defense, and it nearly paid off barely 120 seconds into the match when Dybala jumped a defender close to the Fiorentina penalty area. He won the ball, but couldn’t get himself into a shooting position as Sportiello’s remaining defenders reacted.
Looking to continue the hot streak that had carried Juve in the season’s first month, Dybala tried to turn creator three minutes later. He turned in a neat pass to Higuain, but his countryman failed to do anything with it. Higuain held the ball far too long, missing an opportunity for a return ball on Dybala’s follow-up run, and couldn’t get himself into position to shoot either.
Unfortunately, this would turn into a recurring theme in this game.
Dybala’s heavy involvement in the game’s first exchanges continued when Mandzukic was brought down by Pezzalla about 19 yards out, just to the left of the penalty arc. With Miralem Pjanic out of the lineup, it was always going to be Dybala’s ball, and given the streak he’s on you would be forgiven to think that the kick could be about as automatic as a penatly. Unfortunately, Dybala’s kick bent just to the outside of the post.
After being penned in for most of the game, Fiorentina finally started to maintain some possession after about 18 minutes or so. Even so, Juve were the team making the more threatening passes, although the final ball proved elusive. After a smart diagonal ball from Sturaro sent Mandzukic up the left wing in the 19th minute, he tried to put Higuain through only for the Argentine to be flagged offside — and even if he hadn’t been he’d managed to lose the ball almost immediately anyway. Sixty seconds later, he ran into a wall of defenders in his own half and gave the ball away again.
The defense, meanwhile, was bottling Fiorentina up. Rugani made an excellent tackle in the 21st minute on Simeone, and Sturaro made a good sliding effort 60 seconds later to prevent his man from getting into position for a cross. He then made another excellent pass to Higuain, whose attempt at a back-heel to Dybala was...unsuccessful. By a wide margin. Juve maintained possession, and Dybala eventually tried to fire at Sportiello and was blocked.
Seconds after that block Rugani very nearly made a critical error, getting caught in possession by Simeone. Barzagli was able to run him down, getting a yellow for his trouble, but it was a nervy moment.
Chances were becoming few and far between. A counterattack in the 36th minute saw Simeone in good position, but his delivery was over Chiesa’s head. It took almost 10 more minutes for either team to have a decent chance, when Cuadrado sent in a wormburner of the cross to Mandzukic, but Sportiello managed get in front of the striker and snared it.
The second period started similarly dearth of opportunities. Neither team did much of anything noteworthy until Juve finally opened the scoring.
It was Mandzukic who finally broke the deadlock. Cuadrado had launched a ball into the box from quite a ways out. It was probably meant for Higuain — who whiffed at the ball — but it broke perfectly for Mandzukic, and he sent a diving header into Sportiello’s net for his second goal of the year.
Six minutes later Cuadrado almost exactly replicated his cross except for the angle, but with the goal gaping Higuain failed to latch on.
A mistake in the defensive third nearly gave Fiorentina a chance to equalize in the 62nd minute, but Thereau failed to find the target after making the interception. Two minutes later, the tenor of the game changed.
The incident centered Matuidi, who was sent down the left side by Mandzukic. Dueling down the wing with Badelj, the Frenchman was eventually brought down close to the boundary of the penalty area. Referee Daniele Doveri pointed to the spot, but soon it became clear that someone was in his ear, and in moments he was headed to the sideline to the VAR station.
A quick look at the replay showed that the contact had been initiated outside the box, and Doveri correctly altered his call to a free kick. Equally correctly, he showed Badelj his second yellow card of the match and sent him off.
After the set play — an interesting training ground exercise that saw Cuadrado roll the ball to Dybala at the top of the box for a shot that ended up being blocked.
The Fiorentina penalty area immediately became a busy place. A minute later Mandzukic nearly had his second after poking Cuadrado’s cross toward goal. Sportiello would have been beaten, but Bruno Gaspar got back just in time to block the shot. In the 72nd, Cuadrado went into business for himself, firing a long-range bolt that Sportiello was able to deflect.
As the game entered its final quarter of an hour, Mandzukic continued to press for his second. Cuadrado again sent in a very long cross to the back post, and Mandzukic hammered a header on goal. It pretty much had Sportiello beat, but the keeper reached back behind him and got just enough of a touch on the ball to arrest its momentum and keep the score 1-0.
At that point, Fiorentina started coming forward a bit more. A smart-looking cross came into the box in the 80th minute, but no one was there to get on the end of it. The defense started to stretch a little bit, but Juve still made one last major effort up the field with five minutes left — one that was spoiled not once but twice by Higuain, who first mishandled a ball from Mandzukic and then wasted an impressive effort by Bentancour to regain possession by fumbling the ball yet again. Pjanic, on from the bench for the last 15 minutes, fired from distance at the end of the passage, but Sportiello again made a save.
The last few moments suddenly became a struggle to keep the lead intact. Barzagli and Bentancour both defended dangerous crosses in the 87th minute, then the Uruguayan made another excellent tackle to disrupt Fiorentina’s rhythm. Substitute Gil Dias was slipped into the box, but Sturaro rushed in to block his shot attempt, and Simeone headed the ensuing corner wide of the post.
Doveri added a full minute onto the reported four minutes of stoppage time, but the defense held, and when he finally blew the game dead the Bianconeri had maintained their perfect start to the season.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had literally nothing to do, as Fiorentina failed to put a shot on target. There weren’t really even any crosses he had to deal with. All he really had to do was pass the ball to the guys in the right shirt. A backup goalkeeper’s dream game.
STEFANO STURARO - 6.5. A lot of people are using one moment — when he was nutmegged by Biraghi — to put forward the now-typical claim that Sturaro doesn’t belong in a Juventus shirt. If you bothered to look at the stats, it would say a lot different. He completed 82.3 percent of his passes, including six of 10 long balls and a key pass, and racked up three tackles, two interceptions, and two crosses. Given the fact that this was the second time he’s ever played this position in a competitive game, that’s pretty dang impressive.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Nearly made a big mistake in the first half when Simeone caught him out, and that drags his rating down a tad, but it was another calm performance for Rugani. Juve’s best defensive performances this year have come with him in the lineup. Wonder why?
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 7. Powerful day for Barzagli. He’s still almost impossible to beat face-to-face, and was Johnny on the spot with seven clearances.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 6.5. A pretty good day for the Ghana international, who led the team with five tackles. Consistently regained possession after a teammate lost the ball.
RODRIGO BENTANCOUR - 7.5. This kid is gonna be really good. Was all over the place (in the good way), making three tackles and completing 87.2 percent of his passes. He’s going to start earning a lot more playing time if he keeps on playing like this.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7.5. Completed every pass he attempted (56, to be exact), and like Bentancour did a great job covering ground and regaining possession in midfield.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. It’s not often that Cuadrado strings together two really successful games, so this is a real treat. Sent in a couple of great crosses from very far away, including the one that Mandzukic put away. If he can keep this up, he might actually realize his potential after all.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Heavily involved in the early stages of the game but it was obvious that Fiorentina had game-planned to erase him. After such an insane start, he’s allowed an off night.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 8. His goal was fantastic, and he could have easily had two more were it not for Sportiello and Gaspar. His defensive contribution was stellar as always.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 3. This is officially an issue. Higuain had one of the worst games I’ve seen from a striker. He couldn’t control passes that came to him, he held the ball far too long when he did have the ball at his feet, and saw at least two of Cuadrado’s crosses whiz past him. He only managed 30 touches the entire game. For contrast, Pjanic had more than half of that in 15 minutes.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Had a decently-struck shot late, and kept the midfield humming until Fiorentina’s late spurt at the very end.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Taking on his former team, had very little time to make an impact.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - NR. On at the very end to provide a last bit of solidity.
From a pure tactics standpoint there wasn’t much nuance here. The 4-2-3-1 looked good here, and it was nice to see Cuadrado picking up some of the slack when Dybala had an off game.
It’s good to see Allegri rotating the squad early in the season, especially given the tough slate of games coming up. But the fact that the rotation didn’t extend to the front four is a concern.
One of the main concerns for the team at the end of last year was a lack of depth up front. Higuain played in all but two of Juve’s competitive games last year, and all of the forwards looked like they were about to drop at the end of the year.
With a lot more depth up front this year, it’s going to be important to rest the forwards this year to prevent a similar problem. With a set of tricky games coming up before the international break, it’s going to be important to keep everyone fresh.
Speaking of that tricky slate of games, up next is the home leg of the Derby della Mole. Torino nearly stole a win at the J Stadium last year, but the third stoppage-time goal in three years in that game salvaged a point for a heavily-rotated Juve team. Pride is always on the line in this game, and with Napoli still rolling it will be important to keep the points coming in.
After that, it’s Champions League time again, with a near must-win against Olympiakos. Six big points will be in the offing over the next week, and a rested Juve will look to tackle the challenge head-on.