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Horrid half sees Juve draw at Fiorentina with competitors waiting to pounce

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The worst 45 minutes of football Juve has played all year saw points lost against yet another bottom-of-the-table team as the race for the top four tightens even more.

ACF Fiorentina v FC Juventus - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Juventus had their task laid out pretty clearly. With three of their last four games of the season consisting of a gauntlet that included games against AC Milan, Sassuolo, and Inter, winning the games before that stretch were crucial to their race for a top four finish. After taking care of business against Parma in midweek, the Bianconeri came into their Sunday clash with Fiorentina looking for another important victory, as well as revenge for Fiorentina’s shocking 3-0 win at the Allianz Stadium in December.

What ensued at the Stadio Artemio Franchi was ... not either of those things.

Instead, a surprise formation change produced one of the worst halves of football Juventus have played in a decade, and a moment of complete and utter stupidity on the part of Adrien Rabiot saw Fiorentina go ahead from the penalty spot. Andrea Pirlo recognized his error and changed things at the half, a change that produced an equalizer within literally seconds of the restart and allowed put the team on the front foot for the majority of the second period. But they couldn’t make that pressure pay, and a late miss of a chance that had to be buried saw Juve drop even more points to the bottom of the table, heading home with a 1-1 draw and hoping that results on Monday give them the let-off they need to stay in the top four.

Pirlo abandoned the 4-4-2 that he’d been using the last few weeks to install a straight 3-5-2 to begin the game. Wojciech Szczesny took the gloves, with Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini in front of him in defense. Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro served as the wing-backs around a midfield of Aaron Ramsey, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Rabiot. Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala rounded out the lineup up top.

Fiorentina manager Beppe Iachini got his first crack at Juve this year. The Viola manager had been fired earlier in the year, leaving Cesare Prandelli in charge when the teams met before Christmas, but Prandelli’s unexpected retirement last month, in part to protect his mental health, saw him recalled to finish the season. Bartlomiej Dragowski in goal behind Iachini’s own 3-5-2 setup. German Pezzella, Nikola Milenkovic, and Martin Caceres formed the back three, with Lorenzo Venuti and Igor manning the wing-back spots. Erick Pulgar, Gaetano Castrovilli, and Sofyan Amrabat made up the midfield trio, with Franck Ribery and Dusan Vlahovic up front.

Juve maintained possession over the first 10 minutes or so of play, but none of that possession turned into anything resembling a threat. At one point it seemed like the back three were passing the ball back and forth between themselves for what seemed like a full minute. The closest thing to a chance that they generated in the opening phases came in the seventh minute when Dybala forced a turnover with some pressure upfield. Ramsey got onto the ball, but he didn’t have a direct line to goal and so tried to put Cuadrado in on his right. Problem was, he overhit the pass and the Colombian was forced to whack it into the general direction of the middle of the field, and Dragowski quickly smothered it.

The first real scoring opportunity came for Fiorentina in the 12th minutes. It started with a bad turnover by Ronaldo, who gifted the ball to Ribery, who charged the other way. He slipped in a well-weighted ball into the channel for Vlahovic, but Szczesny came out and made a perfectly-timed dive to intercept the pass, taking an unintentional boot to the elbow from the striker for his trouble.

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

That marked a turning point in the thread of the game, as Fiorentina began to turn the screw and turned into the better side by far for the rest of the half. Szczesny had to parry a thumper from Milenkovic around the post, then the keeper got lucky when Pulgar’s shot from distance took a deflection off Bonucci and took a huge, loopy swerve that ended up whacking off the inside of the post and right into the surprised — and no doubt relieved — Pole’s lap.

Szczesny rode some more good fortune in the 25th minute when he fumbled a ball that was flipped over the defense by Ribery after a short corner. Fortunately, Vlahovic was blocked off by the defense and Bonucci was able to scramble the ball clear. A minute later, another mistake gifted Fiorentina the lead.

The move started with a great cross by Caceres that was just missed by a flying Castrovilli. Rabiot tried to go up to help Chiellini’s clearing header out of danger, but as he jumped put his arm straight into the air and headed it right into it. It took referee Davide Massa a while to be told to go to the video screen, and despite Pirlo’s insistence that he was being pushed, it was incredibly clear that it was a penalty. Vlahovic stepped up to the spot and, with the confidence of a man in his form, executed a brilliant cucciaio that gave Szczesny no chance to stop it.

Juve’s response was tepid, riddled with mistakes and continued to show the team in 15th clearly superior to the team in fourth. Juve created nothing until the 43rd minute, when Dybala, who had to that point been completely anonymous, turned away from Caceres and put Bentancur through. The Uruguayan in turn fed Ramsey, who took one touch to get himself into the box and drew Dragowski into no man’s land — only to poke wide with practically the whole net to aim at. It was a chance that had to be taken, and was the coda on a terrible half of football.

Pirlo clearly recognized the mistakes in his setup, and wasted no time in changing things at the half. Alvaro Morata and Dejan Kulusevski were introduced to change the formation back to 4-4-2, and the change produced immediate dividends. Morata broke behind the defense, played on by Pezzella in the middle of the field and took a ball over the top from Cuadrado. He chopped it inside, then took a speculative shot toward the far post from an acute angle. It was absolutely gorgeous, and Dragowski’s hand couldn’t keep it from nestling into the top corner to tie the score 31 seconds into the second half.

Fiorentina v Juventus - Italian Serie A Photo by Ciro de Luca/Soccrates/Getty Images

Fiorentina weren’t daunted, and came close to retaking the lead twice off the foot of Pulgar, once on a free kick that was deflected just over the crossbar by the wall and the second on a low curling drive that Szczesny parried behind. Juve got their chances as well, but a couple of really good ones were wasted. Just after the hour Cuadrado delivered a free kick to the back post that was met by Chiellini. On replay it was clear that had the captain put the ball on goal he would’ve put Juve ahead, but in the moment he must not have been able to judge the angle and tried to put the ball back across, where no teammates were able to get to it. A few minutes later Dragowski gifted Juve an attack with a goal kick that was hit straight to Morata, who sent Ronaldo into the box. But his shot was blocked by Milenkovic, and Ramsey couldn’t get the ball on frame, instead passing it back to Ronaldo, who was blocked again.

The teams battled it out as the game went into its closing stages, and with six minutes left Juve won only their second corner of the match. It was taken short, and Kulusevski swung in a picture-perfect cross. Ronaldo got free of his marker with a run through the box and leaped into the air. It’s been the setup for so many goals over the last two decades — but today, at a crucial moment in the entire season, he completely whiffed on it. Didn’t even make contact.

It was the last clear chance of the game. Cuadrado tried a training ground routine on a free kick from the right wing two minutes later, but Christian Kouame sniffed it out and kept it from reaching Ronaldo. Massa added only three minutes of stoppage time, and after it ran out, the season was hanging by a thread.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Made some good saves but was also really lucky that he didn’t get punished for that first-half fumble.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Not a monster day in terms of counting stats, but was steady and didn’t get beat by much of anything.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. A decent first half in the middle of the defense before he was taken out as the system changed.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Made two tackles, three interceptions, and three clearances, leading the back line with the usual aplomb, but what could’ve been if he’d read the angle of that header right ...

JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Racked up yet another assist and two key passes overall, and added in two tackles, interceptions, and clearances. Any of the decent moments in the first half had him in the center of it. He continues to be the team’s biggest catalyst.

AARON RAMSEY - 4. Actively detrimental to the team. His miss wasn’t the sitter that came later, but he simply doesn’t give anything to the team going forward, and if Weston McKennie and Arthur are healthy and available, they need to start ahead of him, because he just doesn’t have anything to offer at this point.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Had a monstrous defensive day, setting game highs in tackles (5) and clearances (6) while adding three interceptions. But going forward was more of the same problems, not being incisive enough and only completing 76.9 percent of his passes.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 4. Made four tackles but he HAS to know better than to put that put his hands there while he’s trying to play a game. Nothing incisive coming from him, either passing or running with the ball in attack.

ALEX SANDRO - 6. Defended well, didn’t have much to do with the attack, which was going down Cuadrado’s side for much of the night.

PAULO DYBALA - 4. His only involvement of note was to start the move that led to the Ramsey miss at the end of the first half. Dropped way too deep when the midfield didn’t provide for him up top, and ended up completely neutralized.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 4. Missed a sitter at a critical moment and didn’t put a shot on target. He simply came up empty today, with little to nothing positive coming off any possessions that ended with him.

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

SUBS

ALVARO MORATA - 7. Breathed a spark into the team after an insipid first half. His goal was exquisite, and he added a pair of key passes as well. A great spark.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Was an energetic presence on the right side, and we really should be lauding him for the game-winning assist if Ronaldo had gotten to his cross.

WESTON McKENNIE - 5. On stuck out on the left side of midfield when he got in, and didn’t really get too involved.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

I’ve defended Andrea Pirlo a lot this season, and I will still go to the mat insisting that, of all the problems with this team this year, Pirlo is relatively low down on that list.

But on Sunday, he got things badly wrong. Why he decided to go with a 3-5-2 is impossible to understand. There really was no need, and especially not with that combination of midfielders, which was just out of this world in how inefficient and mismatched they were. Ramsey doesn’t belong on the field for significant minutes right now, and as we’ve said ad nauseum this year, Rabiot and Bentancur are just too similar to work together in a three-man midfield. They have, over the last two weeks or so, showed that they can work better together in a double pivot in the 4-4-2, which makes Pirlo’s choice all the more mystifying. Based on his post-match press conference, the switch was made in part to cover for the fact that Danilo wasn’t fit to start, but he could still have used a 4-4-2 with Cuadrado at fullback and Kulusevski further forward.

That, of course, is what he ended up doing at halftime, and it worked. Juve came out passing the ball better, Morata’s runs in behind the Fiorentina defense provided more danger, and the midfielders did dovetail a little better as Juve tried to press for a winner.

It is to Pirlo’s credit that he recognized things and acted immediately at the half, but the fact of the matter is his miscalculation put Juve behind the eight ball as Fiorentina controlled the game and took the lead. It hasn’t been often (in my opinion, at least) that dropped points have been laid primarily at the feet of Pirlo, but today, it can’t be denied that that’s the case. With better choices in the first half things might’ve been different.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve are still in fourth place, but a win by Napoli on Monday would pull them even on points and jump them into fourth on tiebreakers.

Next week, the Bianconeri trek to the Dacia Arena to face Udinese, then the gauntlet begins, starting with a visit from AC Milan, then an away game against Sassuolo before Inter arrives at the Allianz for the penultimate game of the year.