After a week in which Juventus spurned the opportunity to put some real distance between themselves and their two pursuers in Serie A — and spurned it in the most limp and languid way possible — a home victory over Fiorentina was very much needed. With Inter entering the weekend three points off the lead and Lazio two points behind them with a game in hand, a response to last week’s performance was vital. It’s the kind of week where, over the years, we’ve come to expect to see Angry Juve come out of the tunnel and whack an unfortunate opponent upside the head.
History bears that out: going into the game the Bianconeri had won 15 of their last 16 games following a Serie A loss. It also helped that Fiorentina had only beaten them in Turin six times in their history, and sported a record of seven losses and a draw in the Allianz Stadium since the building opened in 2011. But La viola always play hard against Juve given the rivalry between the two teams, and they played one of their best games of the year in their first meeting in September, when Juve flopped coming out of the international break and were lucky to come away with a goalless draw. This was a much different team than the one they faced in Florence. Franck Ribery, the best player on the field at the Stadio Artemio Franchi that day, is a long-term injury absence, and Vincenzo Montella’s stuttering second reign with the team finally came to an end just before Christmas. Beppe Iachini has come in and put Fiorentina on a nice run of form, but had just suffered his first loss in midweek when Fiorentina fell to Inter in the Coppa Italia quarterfinals.
The 3-0 scoreline of the match would give you the impression that Angry Juve did indeed make an appearance, but it’s a little bit deceiving. That’s not to say Juve didn’t deserve to win the match — on the balance of play they did — but Fiorentina caused some problems for Wojciech Szczesny, particularly in the first half, and all three of Juve’s goals came on dead-ball situations, although they were denied a few times in open play by some great saves from Szczesny’s countryman Bartlomiej Dragowski, putting eight shots on target and having another six blocked. Perhaps more importantly, Juve kept their first league clean sheet since Jan. 6 and only their third in all competitions since the Christmas break, overcoming a few nervy moments in the first half to be fairly comfortable in the second.
At the end of the day, it was a deserved win — perhaps not as dominant as you’d like, and depending on your point of view, a bit controversial, but definitely deserved.
Maurizio Sarri made two personnel changes from the Napoli match, along with a tactical shift from the 4-3-1-2 that has become the team’s staple this year to a 4-3-3. Szczesny stood behind the back four of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield, while Douglas Costa made his first start since that game in Florence in September, when he came off in less than 10 minutes after suffering a muscle injury. Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo joined him up front.
Iachini employed the 3-5-2 that has been a standard for Fiorentina all season. Dragowski was protected by German Pezzella, Federico Ceccherini, and new signing Igor. Former Juve farmhand Pol Lirola played as the right wing-back with Dalbert on the left. The two bookended the midfield team of Rachid Ghezzal, Erick Pulgar, and Marco Benassi, while Patrick Cutrone and Federico Chiesa formed the strike pairing.
Juve threw the first punch of the game five minutes in when Sandro hit a gorgeous long pass that was taken down by Higuain, but his shot was blocked by Igor. On the other end, Pulgar weighed up a pull-back from Chiesa but his shot was at a good height for Szczesny, who swallowed it up on the dive.
Referee Fabrizio Pasqua had the first of many decisions to make in the 10th minute, when Pjanic went down in the box trying to take a shot on a pull-back by Cuadrado, but the midfielder had whiffed at the ball before taking minimal contact from a backtracking Cutrone, and Pasqua rightly waved away the appeals.
The next 10 minutes saw Juve stay on the front foot, but unable to create much against a Fiorentina defense that stayed organized and tried to counterattack. Juve were moving the ball far better than they had in Naples, but still weren’t quite getting it fast enough to truly break their opponents down. That gave Fiorentina the chance to break a few times, and Bonucci made an excellent sliding challenge on Chiesa to prevent him from going clear on goal in the 21st minute. Moments later Pulgar sent a ball in from the right corner of the penalty area that was met by back-heel flicks from both Benassi and Chiesa, the latter of which was headed into the net but for the intervention of Szczesny, who made a diving one-handed save. The ensuing corner was cleared only as far as Lirola, who hit a good half-volley that Szczesny again had to dive for, this time with a two-handed parry. He didn’t get it totally out of the danger zone, but Cutrone couldn’t react to Pulgar’s cross back in, and what ended up being Fiorentina’s best two chances to score in the game went untaken.
Bentancur responded to those chances by taking a pass from Ronaldo and hitting one from a long way out that Dragowski had to get down to knock away.
Pasqua again came front and center in the later stages of the half. In the 32nd minute he didn’t call a penalty for an off-ball incident that saw Igor tackle Ronaldo as he was heading toward a cross that Sandro had just delivered. Five minutes later, though, a snap shot from Pjanic struck the arm of Pezzella, who was trying to turn out of the way but had his arm stretched out from his body in an unnatural position. Pasqua didn’t give the penalty initially, but was called to the VAR screen and returned with the correct call. Earlier in the week, Dragowski had told Corriere dello Sport that he had studied Ronaldo and declared “I know how he shoots.” He actually guessed the right way when the superstar stepped up to take the penalty, but it was executed too well for him to stop it, passing him as his hand pawed at empty air. It was Ronaldo’s ninth straight Serie A game with a goal, tying him with David Trezeguet, who did it in 2005-06, for the team record.
The early portions of the second half didn’t see quite as much action. Juve’s defense, which had looked shaky at times in the first period and, as Danny pointed out this week, has had a rough ride of it this year, tightened up, while Juve continued to probe the Fiorentina defense without success. They did make one mistake in the 64th minute when Benassi was left free to receive a pull-back from substitute Dusan Vlahovic just atop the right channel, and in that moment it looked for all the world like they had coughed up yet another lead. Szczesny was unsighted by Pjanic and rooted to his spot, and you could almost fast-forward a second or two in your mind to see Benassi’s shot snap the net, but it bent just around the far post.
Juve responded to that threat almost immediately through Douglas Costa, who put on one of those trademark bursts of speed on the right side of the box, left Lirola in the dust, and rolled the ball across for Higuain, who stuck out his left foot to stab it home, only to be denied by a remarkable one-handed save from Dragowski, who pawed it away when it was almost already past him.
Benassi’s shot had clearly been seen as a warning, and both the team and manager responded. Paulo Dybala was put on for Higuain as another ball-player to get the ball through Fiorentina’s lines. The defense began to tighten up, and Juve started pressing for an insurance goal. De Ligt really should have scored on a header from a corner kick with 21 minutes to go, but he put it into the side of Cutrone, then Rabiot hit a shot from outside the box that had some swerve to it, but Dragowski was again equal to the long hit. Fiorentina generated a half-chance off a training ground sequence from a free kick, but then Juve managed to seal the deal.
It was another moment where Pasqua came front and center, and the one that will generate most of the controversy from the anti-Juve crowd after the game. It started with Bentancur, who had juked his way past Pezzella and had just entered the box when he met Ceccherini. The defender was sure his contact was legal, but Pasqua blew his whistle immediately for the penalty. This will be debated for a while, but for me two things made it the right call: 1) without the contact Bentancur was probably beating Ceccherini to the ball, and 2) Ceccherini played Bentancur rather than the ball, adding a shove with his forearm for good measure.
Pasqua was again summoned to the screen in order to look, then confirmed his original decision. Ronaldo went to the same side as he did for his first shot, with Dragowski this time going the other way.
The VAR review led to a longer-than-normal amount of stoppage time, but Juve made any questions of a late comeback moot a minute into the added minutes when de Ligt again got free on a corner, this time making no mistake as he headed Dybala’s delivery home.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. A good rebound after a rare mistake last week. His first-half saves came at a moment where the momentum of the game could have turned on a dime.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Led the team in touches by a lot, and was solid but not spectacular overall.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. Played really well at the back on Sunday. His stats seemed a little low to me, and he made several important interventions when called to, especially in the second half. Added in the late goal to turn the key in the lock.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 8. This was a great game. Led the team with four tackles and seven clearances, many of which were really important. Of particular note was his first-half tackle on Chiesa, which prevented him from taking a loose ball 1-on-1 with Szczesny. A real captain’s performance.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Led the team in interceptions and was second in dribbles. Did well to threaten and didn’t let much down his side.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. Dude was a beast. Tackled well in midfield, completed 91.7 percent of his passes, and made a ton of excellent forward runs. The dribble move that drew the second penalty was an excellent, making Pezzella in particular look foolish.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. He kept the ball moving, but he didn’t deliver the kind of incisive passes that directly create a chance, and hasn’t been for a while now. He did lead the midfield in tackles and kept the ball in the Fiorentina half a lot, but this team needs him to be the kind of creative force that he was the first month or so of the season.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Easily his best game in a Juve shirt. Showed some impressive strength and moves to keep possession on multiple occasions, completed 94.3 percent of his passes, and like Bentancur made some good runs up the midfield. If he stays on the upward curve he’s currently on, Juve will have a weapon out of midfield.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5.5. The numbers will say that he led the team in key passes, but his gifts weren’t on full display in this one, instead coming in fits and starts. Once or twice you saw the pace and technique that makes him such a unique footballer, but he’s still getting his feet under him after his latest injury.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. Really never got into the game, getting only 24 touches in his 66 minutes. It’s a testament to his quality that he would have been on the scoresheet regardless, only to be denied by Dragowski, but he didn’t make much impact otherwise.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. Both penalties were really well taken, and he also turned supplier a few times, notching two key passes, but he wasn’t able to threaten much himself in open play.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. Put in a pair of beautiful corner kick deliveries. The first de Ligt spurned, the second he finished. Almost added a fourth in stoppages but couldn’t get his shot off fast enough. Created a little more threat than Higuain did playing between Fiorentina’s lines.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Introduced in a defensive move, he played in the hole to shore up the defense.
BLAISE MATUIDI - NR. On late to seal the game in midfield.
Sarri made a tactical decision to use Costa to provide width against a resolute Fiorentina defense. The 4-3-1-2 has sometimes struggled against teams that use three in the back and funnel the passing into the center-backs, so such a decision was definitely sound from that standpoint. It can be tough watching Dybala start on the bench given the season he’s having, but this was the kind of game that giving him a rest and playing Costa wide makes sense. That Costa didn’t have a great game today is down to needing a little more fitness in his legs.
Things were obviously much better than they were last week against Napoli, but the ball is still being played a little bit too slowly for Sarri’s football to work properly. Dominating possession is a good thing, but to get to the next level Juve needs to start generating more shots and shots on target with that possession. Rabiot’s continued improvement could go a ways toward helping with that, as he can control the ball much better than Matuidi can and might help the attack flow more.
SUPER BOWL PREDICTION
Chiefs 38, 49ers 34. Sorry Danny.
We’re coming up on a very interesting set of fixtures. The rest of February looks like this:
- at Hellas Verona
- at AC Milan (first leg of Coppa semifinals)
- vs. Brescia
- at SPAL
- at Olympique Lyon (first leg of Champions League Round of 16)
That’s a couple of midweek fixtures mixed in with three league games that, on paper, Juve ought to be winning. The significance here is that after that Lyon game comes the return match against Inter. Provided Juve wins all three of their league games, that game could see Inter going for broke to try to make up ground and, crucially, even up the tiebreaker, which Juve currently have the edge on thanks to their win at San Siro in October. If Juve win that game, it could go a long way toward deciding the title.
Inter will have some big games of their own this month. They play the Derby della Madonnina next week, and while they are far superior to this year’s Milan, anything can happen in such a charged match. They then have to tangle with both Napoli and Lazio and will have to play both legs of their Europa League round of 32 match against Ludogorets before coming to Turin.
The bottom line? This month’s league games need to be won to keep maximum pressure on Inter before that game.