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Juve force their way through the Franchi for big win

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The Viola crowd was as livid as ever, but Juve walked out of Florence with a convincing win.

ACF Fiorentina v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

The rivalry between Fiorentina and Juventus has always been rather one-sided in terms of its intensity. Most Juventini consider the derbies against Inter and Torino, as well as more historical fixtures like AC Milan or recent flare-ups like Napoli as more momentous occasions than matchups with La Viola. But for Fiorentina’s fans, between controversial officiating and Juve’s purchase of several of their biggest stars over the decades, the Bianconeri are more hated than even any local Tuscan rivals, and constitute their most passionate game weeks of the year.

Consequently, even though games at the Stadio Artemio Franchi aren’t often the biggest of the year for Juve, they tend to be the most difficult. Regardless of the fact that Juve has only lost two games at the Franchi in the last 20 years, these games are always tough affairs. As Paulo Dybala said before the match, “It’ll feel like a game that never ends.” Indeed, the hopes of any thawing of relations after Fiorentina fans applauded the Juve delegation that attended Davide Astori’s funeral last year were dashed when graffiti insulting the death of former captain Gaetano Scirea and the victims of the Heysel disaster was discovered at the stadium before the game. To the club’s credit, Fiorentina immediately sent workers to paint over the insults once they were made aware of them.

As expected, it wasn’t easy. Fiorentina actually outshot Juve 17-16, but wasted numerous first-half chances, while Juve combined some excellent passing sequences and some fortuitous bounces to eventually get to the end with ease in a 3-0 win.

Massimiliano Allegri had some choices to make for his starting XI. The continued absence of Sami Khedira and Emre Can has made rotating the midfield difficult, and Allegri eventually went out of the box to address the problem. The absence of Alex Sandro after a pulled flexor on Tuesday didn’t help matters. Eventually, Allegri settled on the 4-3-1-2 that he’s been gravitating to, with an exotic twist. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual place in goal, screened by Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Mattia De Sciglio. Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur manned their usual spots in midfield, but Miralem Pjanic was spelled by, of all people, Juan Cuadrado. Dybala dropped into the slot behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic.

Fiorentina had made the Franchi a fortress this season. They hadn’t lost at home all year and had only conceded three times, although their fortunes overall were less encouraging — they had drawn five straight games and hadn’t won since the last day of September. As we learned from our friend Tito at Viola Nation, their forwards (outside of wunderkind Federico Chiesa) have been a dumpster fire, and their leading scorer is midfielder Marco Benassi. Stefano Pioli decided on a 4-3-3 to counter Allegri’s lineup. Teenage sensation Alban Lafont took his place as goalkeeper, with Nikola Milenkovic, German Pezzella, Vitor Hugo, and Cristiano Biraghi in front of him. Benassi was joined by Jordan Veretout and Edimilson Fernandes in the middle, while Chiesa joined forces with Giovanni Simeone and Gerson.

One of Tito’s biggest gripes about Fiorentina this season was an inability to maintain possession, but for the first quarter of an hour they were the team on the front foot. Within two minutes of the first whistle, Benassi had a vicious shot from distance fly just wide after a free kick routine, and Milenkovic fired over from a corner not long after. Both teams sent free kicks into the wall, but the next big opportunity was again Fiorentina’s, this time handed to them by an ill-advised back-pass from Bentancur, which ran into his own box. Chiellini tried to intervene but only hit the ball off of Gerson, and the ricochet amounted to a shot, and Szczesny was fortunately in the right place at the right time to intervene as the ball headed for the goal.

It’s never good for the referee to take center stage in a high-strung game like this, but the focus came tight on Daniele Orsato twice in the space of a few minutes midway through the half. The first moment came in the 25th minute, when De Sciglio’s cross from the right side hit the arm of Biraghi, who had slid in to try to block the service. A case can often be made that a player is entitled to brace himself as he’s going to ground, but Biraghi’s hand was way behind him. This turned into one of those situations that make me detest the “intent” part of the handball rule. Biraghi was clearly making himself bigger as his arm trailed behind him, and it really shouldn’t matter whether he meant to hit the ball with his arm, because its position was so unnatural that he’s still gaining an advantage. Orsato, however, must have deemed the incident “unintentional,” because he declined to award a penalty after a cursory VAR check. Orsato again had to make a decision three minutes later when Ronaldo was dumped to the ground by Pezzella as he tried to dribble past him. The Argentine defender had practically put his arm all the way around the superstar as he went past, clearly impeding him, but Orsato again declined to blow his whistle.

Fortunately, those two calls became moot just after the half hour thanks to a fantastic bit of play from Juve’s youngest starter. Bentancur played a beautiful give-and-go with Dybala, then took advantage of a diagonal run by Ronaldo that pulled Milenkovic and Pezzella with him. Pezzella tried to recover, but Bentancur easily dribbled past him and fired a left-footed daisy cutter against the grain just as Lafont was committing to going the other way. It was one of the prettiest goals Juve had scored this season.

Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Fiorentina wasn’t deterred, however, and just like on Tuesday against Valencia Juve very nearly gave up their lead only moments after taking it. Benassi wasn’t the target of the right-sided cross that came in, but it fell for him and he tried slipping it back in for Simeone. But Chiellini managed to get the barest of touches to the cross, popping the ball into the air and forcing Simeone to play it with his knee, and Szczesny jumped into the traffic to cover it.

Both teams forced saves in the final 10 minutes, with Szczesny’s stop on Chiesa far easier than Lafont’s denial of Dybala. With five minutes left, Juve found themselves with another direct free kick attempt in the penalty arc just to the left of center. This time Ronaldo outdid himself in his efforts to hit the wall, trying to go with power to the far post but finding the one Fiorentina player on that side of the defense.

The teams went into the half 1-0, with Juve perhaps lucky that Fiorentina had spurned a few of their chances. They came out blazing after the opening whistle of the second period, with Dybala sending Ronaldo into the left channel, but Pezzella just kept pace with him to block the shot as he cut inside.

Fiorentina proceeded to unleash a high press, and for the next 15-20 minutes the Viola searched for an equalizer, consistently firing shots at Szczesny’s goal that either flew well over the crossbar or ended up as easy saves for the Pole. Vitor Hugo had the ball at his feet right in front of goal in the aftermath of a 58th minute free kick, after Cuadrado stopped to argue for a foul after losing the ball rather than getting back on defense, but the defender couldn’t sort it out and Mandzukic came over to help clear. The only piece of real offense Juve managed to get in was another direct free kick. This time Ronaldo actually beat the wall (!!), taking something off of the shot and shaping it toward the goal. It was a good shot but still a little too close to Lafont, who dove to his left to stop it. Pioli went to his bench to add some more firepower to his attack with 25 minutes left, adding Juve loanee Marko Pjaca to the mix in place of Benassi.

But all of Fiorentina’s efforts came for naught in the 69th minute.

Juventus took a short corner and Dybala’s ball into the box came back out off the head of Fernandes. Cuadrado rushed in and headed the ball back into the mix, and Chiellini measured it up and volleyed it from the upper corner of the six-yard box. Lafont did well to get to it, but his parry popped up into the air and back into danger. Ronaldo and Fernandes leaped for the rebound, but it eluded both of them, hit the ground with an insane amount of backspin, and bounced into the goal. Fiorentina appealed for offside on Ronaldo, but he was clearly behind the ball as Chiellini delivered his shot.

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

It was Chiellini’s first club goal since he scored against Barcelona in the Champions League in April of 2017, and his first goal in Serie A since a double against Sampdoria five months before that. He was also the second former Fiorentina player to score for Juventus in Florence in as many games, after Federico Bernardeschi last year—and the assist went to yet another former Viola man in Cuadrado.

Eight minutes later all doubts about the result were removed when Orsato finally decided to call a penalty for handball, this time an indisputable call against Fernandes, who interdicted Mandzukic’s cross with his right arm. Earlier in the week Lafont had talked about his desire to face Ronaldo from the penalty spot, and he actually guessed where the forward was going with the ball, but Ronaldo’s penalty was completely unstoppable, high into the net with a ton of power.

The Portugal international garnered himself his first yellow card as a Juventus player when he took the ball from the goal and booted it into the stands. That immediately led to another first: Ronaldo was subbed off before play resumed, the first time other than his baffling red card in the Champions League that he was withdrawn before the end of the game. His replacement was Federico Bernardeschi, making his first appearance in more than a month due to injury. He was immediately on the end of intense jeers every time he touched the ball.

With the game blown open, the rest of the match played out uneventfully. We did get to see Moise Kean play his first league minutes of the season as he replaced Mandzukic late on, and Orsato brought the game to a close after two minutes of stoppage time.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Faced a good amount of shots, although none of the ones that hit the target were particularly challenging. Alert to a lot of crosses as well.

JOAO CANCELO - 7. Played on both sides of the field and did very well. Had a near miss with a great shot at the end of the first half, and did well defensively, making a pair of tackles and a pair of clearances.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. His passing was on the back burner, but he made up for it with five interceptions and was never really under much pressure.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. His goal was as ugly as his initial shot was pretty. Took his customary team lead in clearances and added a tackle and an interception as well.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 8. Made a team-leading six tackles and shackled Chiesa for much of the night. He may not boast the unbridled attacking ability that players like Cancelo and Sandro have, but no one gets past him.

JUAN CUADRADO - 7.5 I didn’t think he would be as good as he was, but it’s hard to argue with his results. He had a few strange moments, like that bit where he stopped to argue for a foul rather than get back on defense, but notched the assist for Chiellini’s goal, and registered three tackles and three interceptions in midfield. Hard to argue with the result here, unorthodox as it was.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. A really good game. Completed a team-high 93 percent of his passes, made three tackles, two interceptions and a pair of clearances. Oh, and that goal was just pretty. The regista spot isn’t where you want him full-time, but he manned it in his own way and did really well doing it. Anyone who doesn’t think this kid is going to be special by this point is crazy.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 7.5. Good pass completion and a typically excellent day when it came to ball recovery. He’s so steady.

PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. Great give and go pass to assist the opener, and three key passes overall. Don’t be fooled by the lack of huge numbers—he’s settling into this role behind Ronaldo and Mandzukic and linking the midfield with the forwards well.

MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. Didn’t threaten the goal as often as he has in recent weeks, but made a pair of tackles tracking back and won a mind-boggling seven aerial duels — as many as the entire Fiorentina back four combined and only three fewer than the entire team.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. His penalty was perfectly done, and he provided four key passes on the day as well. He pulled defenders all over the place with his runs as well. He becomes the first Juve player to score 10 goals in his first 14 games since the legendary John Charles in 1957-58

SUBS

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Good to see him getting a run after the injury problems he’s dealt with the last two months.

DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. How dangerous is Douglas Costa? In seven minutes he only made three passes—but one of them was a key pass. He can create instantly. Amazing.

MOISE KEAN -NR. Saw out the last few minutes. Hopefully he can get on a little earlier in games like this.

Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

MANAGER ANALYSIS

About 20 minutes into the match I noticed that De Sciglio and Cancelo, who had started on the left and right flanks, respectively, had switched sides. The two proceeded to continue swapping flanks for the rest of the game. While Cancelo has proven not to be nearly the kind of defensive liability we feared he might be going into the year, De Sciglio is by far the superior defender, and it looked like Allegri may have decided to shadow Fiorentina’s biggest threat, Chiesa, with his best wide defender. Wingers switch sides of the field all the time, but full-backs don’t swap all that much, and shadowing Chiesa seems to be the best explanation for the unusual changes.

I talked about using a 4-3-1-2 earlier this year. My proposal was to use Ronaldo and Dybala with Pjanic behind the two, but as the relationship between Ronaldo and Mandzukic continues to grow it makes a lot of sense to keep the two of them on the field together, and Dybala has seemed to take to the trequartista role better with two players ahead of him instead of a single striker in the 4-2-3-1. This might indeed be the best way for the team to set up at the front going forward, using wingers like Costa and Cuadrado as a change of pace and Bernardeschi to either serve as a wide player or as either a trequartista or seconda punta, depending on what’s required of him. This shape gives Allegri options and enhances the relationship between Ronaldo and Mandzukic while using Dybala’s skill set to link the lines.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juventus have now earned 40 points over the season’s first 14 games — the best start to a Serie A season since the league made a win worth three points instead of two in 1994.

Up next on the docket? The Derby d’Italia against Inter. The dislike between the two teams will only be increased by their last meeting, when Miralem Pjanic escaped a second yellow card and Juve came from behind to beat a 10-man Inter side to reestablish their hold on first place. With the Nerazzuri harboring designs of being the team to finally knock Juve from the top of Serie A, the intensity will be ramped up that much more.

After that, it’s the final game of the Champions League group stage away to Young Boys, where Juve will look to lock up the top spot in Group H.