The relationship between Juventus and Fiorentina is a weird one, but it can probably be best summed up by this scene from the otherwise-terrible 1994 movie adaptation of Street Fighter. As a kidnapped heroine recounts to the villainous M. Bison how he killed her father, he claims not to remember. In response to her shock, he tells her, “For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.”
That pretty much describes it to a T. For Fiorentina, every game against Juve is a death struggle against a hated foe. But for Juventus, a game against Fiorentina, while still a game that must be won like any other, is no more than that. La Viola just don’t inspire the animosity or passion that Inter or Torino do.
This strange state of affairs makes for some interesting dynamics in this fixture. Fiorentina tend to be charged up and treat the game like the death struggle that their fans make it out to be. Juventus has to match that intensity, and sometimes — like last January when Fiorentina beat Juve 2-1 at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in a game that wasn’t that close — they don’t do that until it’s too late.
Today, though, they managed to keep up, and after a disappointing first half gave it the gas in the second to key up a 2-0 win.
It didn’t help Juventus that the team’s injury crisis had only deepened, with midfielder Blaise Matuidi out nearly a month after only managing 20 minutes on Sunday against Sassuolo. He joined Benedickt Howedes, Juan Cuadrado, and Paulo Dybala on the injured list. Fortunately, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele Rugani both made the grade after suffering minor knocks on Sunday.
With a dwindling list of options, Massimiliano Allegri was forced to stick with the same attacking trident in his 4-3-3. Gonzalo Higuain played as the striker, flanked by Mario Mandzukic and Federico Bernardeschi, who was making his first start against his old club. Further back, Claudio Marchisio replaced Matuidi and joined Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira in midfield. Stephan Lichtsteiner rotated in at right back, joining Medhi Benatia, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro in front of Gianluigi Buffon, who was playing in his 500th Serie A game in goal for Juventus.
Fiorentina coach Stefano Pioli sent out a team that is young and hungry. Marco Sportiello stood in goal. Nikola Milenkovic, usually a center-back, played at right-back in an effort to counter Mandzukic’s usual physical advantage over full-backs. German Pezzella and Davide Astori made up the central pair with Cristiano Biraghi on the left. Milan Badelj, Marco Benassi, and Jordan Veretout made up the midfield, with the talented young attacking trio of Gil Dias, Giovanni Simeone, and Federico Chiesa up top.
Almost immediately Bernardeschi saw the ball at his feet, greeted by a chorus of whistles and jeers. He controlled excellently under pressure, but Juve’s move eventually petered out.
It took six minutes to see the game’s first shot: a long drive from Marchisio that was right at Sportiello.
Meanwhile, Fiorentina was utilizing a high press, getting in the face of any Juve player who had the ball. In the ninth minute that produced a terrible pass by Benatia, but Sandro tracked well with Dias to deny the Portuguese winger the ball in the box. Three minutes later Marchisio made a terrible pass under pressure. Chiesa was the only person near it, but he got tangled up in his own feet and fell, allowing Pjanic to get back on defense and dispossess him.
Pjanic was all over the place on defense in the early going, accounting for a pair of tackles and interceptions. But he too fell victim to the press as the game went on.
A minute after Benassi took Fiorentina’s first shot — a long ball similar to Marchisio’s that when right at Buffon — came the incident that everyone is going to talk about.
It happened on 18 minutes. Benassi was given possession on the Fiorentina right and moved to cross it. He was faced up by Chiellini, whose hands were outside his body when it hit him in his chest-armpit-arm area. Referee Marco Guida immediately pointed to the penalty spot. After a vehement argument by the Bianconeri players, Veretout stepped up to (nervously) line up for the kick. But several Juve players, Miralem Pjanic chief amongst them, stood inside the penalty area and stayed there, preventing the kick from being taken until Guida finally put his hand to his ear and started talking to the VAR official.
After a frustrating four minute wait, in which the review was conducted entirely by the officials’ radio system, Guida pulled the penalty back, signaling for offside. Benassi had indeed been in an offside position when the ball came back to him, but further inspection of the replay revealed that the ball had last come off of Sandro as he fought for the ball, meaning that Benassi shouldn’t have been called offside.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
Back the replay up a few more seconds, and it was clear that Sandro was fouled. So, even though the referee made an incorrect call by signaling offside, calling the penalty kick back was still the correct call based on the foul. So eventually, in a way so roundabout to border on stupid, they ended up getting things right—although we guarantee there will be massive column inches occupied by the latest screeds over VAR in Sunday’s sports pages.
That whole incident saw the game get chippy, with Lichtsteiner earning a booking after a lunge on Chiesa. Just before the half-hour Juve earned back-to-back corners but couldn’t make either count. After Chiellini denied an attempt by Benassi to feed Simeone with a back-heel, Juve went on a break that nearly resulted in a Fiorentina own goal. Mandzukic’s cross was falling toward a streaking Khedira, but Astori had a step on him and fired a bullet header back towards his own keeper. Sportiello was ready for it and smothered it.
Sportiello was called into action again on 38 minutes, when he punched a free kick from Pjanic that was falling into the line of Mandzukic’s back-post run. The ensuing corner came barreling the other way, and Chiesa released Gil Dias, who bamboozled Lichtsteiner before unleashing a shot that beat Buffon but was always curling and whacked into the post, caroming right back to Buffon to end the threat.
Emotions started running high, and two minutes before the break Milenkovic came head to head with Higuain after the Argentine objected to taking a spike in the thigh. Bernardeschi fired a bullet cross for Higuain right before stoppage time, but Pezzella forced it away.
Nothing changed at the half, in terms of substitutions and in terms of on-field play. Fiorentina continued to press hard, harrying Pjanic into a rough pass seconds in that Chiellini had to clear in a panic. Nothing Juve did managed to break the press. Benatia gave the ball away with a terrible pass, although Juve managed to grab possession back. Higuain couldn’t hold the ball up on his own and Khedira was dispossessed after trying to run through the trap.
In the 52nd minute the pressure nearly paid when Chiesa beat the offside trap but misread Simeone’s run and passed to the far post when Il Cholito was heading for the near, fizzing it across the face of goal. Two minutes Veretout fired a wide from distance. But barely a minute after that everything changed.
It started with Lichtsteiner, who attacked down the right. His cross was deflected but he kept at it and headed the ball down to Bernardeschi, who was fouled right at the very edge of the box. He and Pjanic stood over the free kick, but it was in lefty territory, and Bernardeschi made his old team pay. Sportiello, expecting a near-post curler, committed early, and the €40 million man bypassed the wall entirely by hitting a low, powerful shot to the far post, past a flailing Sportiello.
Allegri quickly started making moves. On the hour mark, Lichtsteiner was brought off for Barzagli.
They needed the extra defensive stability. Just after the hour there were a pair of goalmouth scrambles, one of which saw a shot blocked. The corner that resulted from the second could have ended with a reach chance, but the decision making broke down and the ball never got where it needed to go. Soon after Marchisio made way for Douglas Costa, resulting in a formation change.
Costa’s impact was almost immediate. Barely three minutes after coming on he broke down the right on a give-and-go with Bernardeschi. He squared the ball to Higuain, whose attempt at an insurance goal was blocked out for a corner.
In the 71st minute Chiesa managed to slip through what looked like the entire defense and eventually squirted the ball to substitute Cyril Thereau, but the Frenchman was met by Buffon, who made a kick-save at point-blank range to save the lead.
Juve’s passing started breaking down again, and Fiorentina heaped on pressure, but Juve kept their lines organized and as the waves of pressure repelled every ball. Fiorentina got the ball out to the wings from time to time, but the 5-foot-11 Simeone was never going to beat Chiellini and Benatia in the air for the crosses. At times it looked like the December game against Napoli, when cross after cross was floated in the direction of Dries Mertens, who was at a serious height disadvantage to Juve’s defenders.
Higuain missed out on an opportunity when he failed to control a ball in by Rodrigo Bentancur, who replaced Bernardeschi in the 78th minute and had gained possession up the field. But four minutes from time, the Argentine made no mistake. Milenkovic, who had clashed with Higuain earlier, lazily kept him onside, and Chiellini stepped to midfield and launched a ball through the defense—with his right foot, no less—and the striker made no mistake one-on-one with Sportiello.
The last few minutes were a formality, and when Fiorentina sub Valentin Eysseric fired a free kick into the wall after five minutes of extra time, the game was over, putting Juve provisionally ahead of Napoli as the Partenopei head into Saturday’s game against Lazio.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. Since he came back from injury he’s saved a penalty and made a fantastic save on Thereau. Pretty dang good for a 40-year-old.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 5.5. Was perhaps lucky to only get away with a yellow for his foul on Chiesa. Didn’t really do a lot in support of Bernardeschi and was laid bare when Dias hit the post.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. Immense performance. Didn’t let Simeone get a sniff. Three interceptions and a team-high seven clearances, and was always in the right position.
MEDHI BENATIA - 6. Not so great in possession today, giving the ball away several times. Still good on the defensive end.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Didn’t help Mandzukic out on the left as much as he may have, but unlike games past was rock-solid in defense, making a team-high five tackles and generally keeping Dias bottled up on the defensive left.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 4.5. Completely absent today. Made a couple of good runs into the box but couldn’t get in position to capitalize. Did nothing creative and wasn’t particularly noteworthy defensively either. Should have been hauled off but Marchisio can’t handle 90 minutes right now.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Interestingly enough that seven is more for his defensive work than his passing. The Fiorentina press broke up his usually-metronomic rhythm, but he worked hard in defense and broke up a couple of dangerous moves.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 6. Wasn’t very precise, but neither was anyone else on the team. Seeing him playing as a box-to-box midfielder after all these years was nice to see. If he can stay healthy he’ll be a huge part of this team for the next month while Matuidi is out.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7. Hissed at every time he came near the ball, but stayed composed. Got marked out of the game by Biraghi in the first half but had more room in the second, and his goal was a thing of beauty.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6.5. Not really a good game from the Argentine before the goal, but clinical as hell when he got the chance at the end.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 6.5. Not much going forward today but was immense dropping back to defend.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 7. Two tackles and five clearances in 30 minutes of work. Added some solidity to the back as Juve let Fiorentina try to break them down with the lead.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. Made some real problems with his speed against a tired defense.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Not on the field long enough to get a number rating but boy was he impressive. I can’t wait to see him play full time.
The 4-3-3 is now the standard without Dybala—it’s going to be interesting to see how Allegri handles reintegrating him into the lineup.
Allegri did make some tactical changes as the game progressed. Removing Lichtsteiner for Barzagli was probably a good move, but when Marchisio was replaced by Costa it caused a shuffle on the field. Until Bentancur came on with 12 minutes left it looked like one of the 3-4-2-1 shapes that Allegri used toward the end of the Champions League last year. The Uruguayan’s introduction shifted the team back to a 4-3-3 at the end, which frankly looked a little more solid.
It’s a big month ahead. Tuesday is the biggest day of the year — the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 against Tottenham Hotspur. It’s being billed as a duel between Higuain and Harry Kane, but Mauricio Pochettino’s team isn’t just about their No. 9. Dele Alli, Christian Erikson, and Son Heung-min are all dangerous as heck. Pochettino likes to press, and if Juve react to that press the way they reacted today the London side is going to make them pay. Allegri does have a good track record against pressing teams — Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in the 2014-15 Champions League comes to mind — but they can’t be as loose with their possession as they were in Florence.
After that comes an early kickoff in the Derby della Mole against Torino on Saturday — where, depending on the results of this Saturday’s game between Napoli and Lazio, they could go into the game as league leaders for the first time since the first weeks of the season.