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Juve bounce back to clinch title No. 8 in a row

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Juventus v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

One of the marks of a champion is how it bounces back from adversity.

After Juventus’ deeply disappointing elimination from the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday, they had to pick themselves up and focus on their next challenge. The team was still a point away from sealing the Scudetto for the eighth straight year, and there was nothing that Fiorentina would have liked more than to put those celebrations on hold with a win at the Allianz Stadium. They got themselves in front early and looked capable of running away with the victory, but Juve dug in and got back into the game, then played a much better second half to secure a 2-1 win and clinch the title with five rounds to spare, tying Inter for the league record in the three-points-for-a-win era.

La Viola arrived in Turin in the end phase of a difficult season. They came into the game in 10th place, making the Coppa Italia — they’re about to play the second leg of the semifinal against Atlanta, with the first leg having ended 3-3 — their only route into Europe. They’re only 10 days removed from a messy divorce with coach Stefano Pioli, placing Vincenzo Montella in charge for his second stint with the club. His first match back in charge had been a dour scoreless draw, and he was looking for a better performance this time around.

Montella and Massimiliano Allegri both opted for 4-4-2 formations. Allegri’s choice was dictated as much by necessity as preference, as he had only four healthy first-team forwards, with Mario Mandzukic, Douglas Costa, and Paulo Dybala all out. Joining them on the bench were Giorgio Chiellini, Sami Khedira, and Mattia Perin, leaving Allegri with very few options. Wojciech Szczesny took up his usual place in goal, with Joao Cancelo, Daniele Rugani, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro forming the back four in front of him. Juan Cuadrado, Miralem Pjanic, Emre Can, and Blaise Matuidi manned the midfield, while Federico Bernardeschi and Cristiano Ronaldo formed a strike pair up front.

Montella countered with Alban Lafont in goal, shielded by Nikola Milenkovic, German Pezzella, Federico Ceccerini, and David Hancko. Kevin Mirallas and Marco Benassi bracketed Bryan Dabo and Jordan Veretout in midfield, with Federico Chiesa and Giovanni Simeone forming the top of the spear up front.

Juve grabbed the possession early and looked threatening. Sandro was called fractionally offside on a long ball, then Bernardeschi made a nice move to get himself into a crossing position. Ronaldo managed to blast the ball across the face of goal and right back to his strike partner, who put the ball back into the mix for it to be dug out by the defenders.

But those early signs of a fire were stamped down with authority on Fiorentina’s very first attack six minutes in. The move was started by Milenkovic, who skipped past Pjanic and slipped Chiesa into the channel. He crossed it in from the byline, where Szczesny, Rugani, and Can all attacked it. Szczesny got one hand to it, but couldn’t corral it in all the traffic, and it squirted back out to Milenkovic, who had followed the play and had an easy slot home from six yards. To make matters worse, Rugani’s foot came down hard on Szczesny’s wrist, necessitating several minutes of attention from the training staff.

Juventus v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

The story of the rest of the first half followed that kind of pattern. Juve would control possession and for the most part keep it in the vicinity of the Fiorentina penalty area, but when they put one foot wrong Fiorentina would punish them with a counterattack that had some serious fangs.

They produced far better chances through much of the first half. Mirallas blasted over the bar after a three-on-two break in the 11th minutes, then on 20 minutes Bonucci was faced with a two-on-one but managed to interdict Simeone’s pass for Chiesa. Through all this Szczesny was in clear discomfort, and for a while it looked like he would have to give way to Carlo Pinsoglio, who had assumed the backup keeper’s job in Perin’s absence. The Pole, though, ended up gutting through the pain and playing the whole game.

For all their possession, Juve weren’t making a bunch of clear-cut chances. They were putting crosses into decent areas, but Fiorentina’s defense was dealing with them. Ronaldo wanted a penalty when he was bodied away from a cross by Ceccherini, but referee Fabrizio Pasqua waved play on. They finally got in a decent chance countering off a corner kick, but Bernardeschi’s shot was blocked by Benassi, skimming off the outside of the goal as it went for a corner.

Simeone thought he had doubled the lead in the 26th minute, but he was flagged offside. Pjanic finally hit the target for the first time just after the half hour, but it was an easy catch for Lafont. Chiesa then took center stage with a pair of good chances. The first saw him take just too hard a touch, allowing Szczesny to come out and smother the ball. The second was far more dangerous, controlling a pass from Mirallas and whacking it off the post.

The feeling was that Juve were the more vulnerable side even though they had so much possession. Every time Fiorentina got the ball they powered it up the field and the defense wasn’t catching up to them. It made the equalizer in the 37th minute feel very much against the run of play.

But that didn’t make it any less welcome for Juventini. It came off a corner kick, with Pjanic’s delivery coming to the near post and Sandro stooping down to fire a low header past a surprised Lafont. It really was an excellent header, and Juve were suddenly back in business.

Juventus v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

The team moved the ball better after the goal, but it was Chiesa who again provided the most danger. In the 41st minute he nearly beat Szczesny, who had come way out of his goal, to a loose ball, but the ricochet ended up going out for a throw instead. Can then sagged off of him, giving him the space to direct a rocket that had Szczesny beat but slamming off the bottom of the post and out, with Simeone heading the rebound over.

Juve went into the half tied at 1-1 and, as they were against SPAL last week, were 45 minutes away from taking the title home for good.

Juve looked far more organized and solid in the second half, and it took them all of eight minutes to get themselves ahead. The winner came when Ronaldo surged down the right side and crossed from the byline. He was looking for a run from Bernardeschi, but Pezzella had position on him and tried to intervene, but only succeeded in nutmegging his own keeper while putting the ball into the back of his own net.

Fiorentina were still countering well, but Juve had their defense better set, and their attacks were looking more dangerous. A mistake in possession saw Sandro jump on the ball and tee up Ronaldo in the 63rd minute, but his shot was blocked, as was Cuadrado’s followup. The ensuing corner saw more shots blocked before it fell kindly to Pjanic, whose strike had far more venom this time and forced a good save out of Lafont.

Things became less and less eventful as the half entered its latter stages. Chiesa was curiously withdrawn for Luis Muriel after 65 minutes, and a lot of the sting was taken out of Fiorentina’s tail. Szczesny claimed a few tame shots and made one smart save with his foot on Dabo just as stoppage time began, but by that point it was clear that even if Fiorentina had managed an equalizer, Juventus would still take the point they needed.

When the final whistle blew, the celebrations began. Cuadrado, once again, somehow managed to find the spare can of vanishing spray on the sidelines and cover Allegri’s head with the stuff, adding Ronaldo and Andrea Barzagli for good measure, as the team gathered on the field singing “Juve, storia di un grande amore” with the rest of the stadium, celebrating yet another Italian crown.

Juventus v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. It really looked like he’d have to leave the game after taking that blow to the wrist, but he gutted it out and made some good saves, controlling his box well.

JOAO CANCELO - 6. Posed some threat going forward making three key passes, but that often left him out of position when Fiorentina powered forward on the counter.

DANIELE RUGANI - 6. A little wonky on the opener getting in Szczesny’s way, but finished the rest of the game well, leading the team with five clearances and two interceptions.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Made a couple of important interventions on some of those first half counters, particularly that 20th-minute interception on what would have otherwise been a tap-in for Chiesa.

ALEX SANDRO - 7. Scored a great header and defended well down the left-hand side.

JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Didn’t get any significant crosses into the box and couldn’t get by when he tried to take his man on. Probably a rust thing more than anything else.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Made four key passes and completed 96.4 percent overall. Put in a great delivery on the corner for the equalizer.

EMRE CAN - 6. Made five tackles in midfield. Imposed himself a little more in the second half, which helped Juve command that period of play.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Made two key passes to go along with three tackles. A bit understated but he did everything he needed to today.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. Shared the team lead in key passes with four, but needs to make his decisions a little quicker. Buzzed around the attacking third all game.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. A powerful surge that forced the own goal for the winner, and had a couple of good positions spoiled by blocks.

SUBS

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Kept the midfield solid when he came on for Pjanic.

MOISE KEAN - 5. Got very little in the way of service up front.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - NR. On for the last few minutes to offer up some defensive solidity.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Given the current injury situation, the system Allegri went with was probably the best he could have used in the circumstances. Minor quibble: why shoehorn three central midfielders into a 4-4-2 when Leonardo Spinazzola is on the team? He could have either taken the left midfield spot or the left-back position while Sandro pushed up.

The adjustments he made at halftime made the team far more solid against Fiorentina’s lightning counter, but that vulnerability was a little disturbing. Perhaps that and the fact that the attack seemed lacking ideas at times up front despite their possession were the product of an unfamiliar formation. The latter, though, has been a problem all year long, and is really emblematic of a lack of an effective tactical system as opposed to relying on the individual quality of the players. The roster has some holes that need to be addressed next year, but Allegri must also find a real system for this team, especially with Ronaldo in the team.

LOOKING AHEAD

Historical note: Juventus have set the record for consecutive league titles amongst Europe’s Big Five leagues (Italy, England, France, Spain, and Germany) that until today they held jointly with Olympique Lyon from 2001-02 to ‘07-08.

With the scudetto wrapped, the remaining five games are dead rubbers, but that doesn’t mean they’re insignificant. The Derby d’Italia and the Derby della Mole are up next back-to-back, before a trip to Roma. The week after that is the final home game of the year against Atalanta, which will serve as the trophy presentation day. A trip to the Marassi to face Sampdoria will close out the year.