There’s a reason that the famous introduction to the long-running classic ABC’s Wide World of Sports would make a point to mention “the agony of defeat.”
It’s because sports can be utterly, utterly cruel.
It is a universal constant of athletic competition, from the most ancient times of humanity, through that poor ski jumper that generations of WWoS’s viewers would watch starch himself every week, up through the utter despair embodied by Lorenzo Venuti on Wednesday night at the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
After dominating Juventus for 90 minutes in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semifinal on a night when the Franchi, always emotional when Juve come to town, was out-and-out seething with rage at the mere existence of Dusan Vlahovic in a black and white shirt, for Fiorentina’s night to end on an absolutely heartbreaking stoppage-time own goal that saw Nikola Milenkovic get the barest touches on a Juan Cuadrado cross, redirecting it off of Venuti’s chest and arm and leaving the Fiorentina youth product to watch the ball trickle into the goal, giving Juventus a 1-0 win headed into the second leg of the semifinal tie in April.
It was indeed a cruel blow to La Viola, who had done literally everything orders of magnitude better than Juventus did on the night. They passed better, made more cohesive attacking moves, and were generally more physical than their hated rivals, and they had a distinct tactical advantage considering how many players Juve were missing. But, as well as they played, they had precious few really big chances, and the two best ones they made missed by whiskers. And regardless of how poorly they may play, if you let Juventus stick around, bad things can happen to you. And, like they did when they met in November, Juve, through Cuadrado, made a VERY bad thing happen to Fiorentina in the first added minute.
Massimiliano Allegri was missing nine first team players for this game. That left precious few outfield players on the bench him going into the game — one of whom, Leonardo Bonucci, isn’t himself 100 percent fit and was being rested for the match despite being included on the bench. That left only one true center-back and three midfielders on the roster, which was padded out with four players from the Under-23 team, one of whom started the game to give him a little more tactical flex. Allegri deployed the team in a 3-5-2 setup. So strapped was the team for depth that the captaincy for the day went to Danilo, who, considering the existing captain’s hierarchy and some extrapolation based on team seniority, is, at the very best, seventh in line for the armband. Mattia Perin took up his customary starting slot in the Coppa, while Matthijs de Ligt anchored a back three that consisted of Danilo and Mattia De Sciglio. Marley Ake made his first career senior team start as the right wing-back opposite Luca Pellegrini, while Manuel Locatelli, Arthur, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield behind the strike pair of Vlahovic and Moise Kean.
Vincenzo Italiano, by contrast, was playing with almost a full deck, missing only the injured Matija Nastasic and the suspended Lucas Martinez Quarta. He deployed a full-strength starting XI in his 4-3-3, with Pietro Terracciano in goal behind the back four of Alvaro Odorizola, Nikola Milenkovic, Igor, and Cristiano Biraghi. Gaetano Castrovilli, Lucas Torreira, and Giacomo Bonaventura manned the midfield, while Jonathan Ikone and Riccardo Saponara flanked Krzysztof Piatek up front.
Vlahovic got his first touch — and his first dose of post-transfer hospitality — early on, but had precious few more in a first half that was completely dominated by the home side. Egged on by their talented coach and buoyed by a white-hot crowd, Fiorentina pressed like demons, constantly denying Juventus the ability to play out of their own half and forcing them to resort to long 50/50 balls that Milenkovic and Igor took turns beating up on Vlahovic for. Juve, for their part, assumed a defensive shape, picking and choosing times to press, and generally limiting the home team to shots from distance. The first of those came from Saponara in the seventh minute, which Perin smothered on a short-hop.
Perin generally dealt with those long-range shots with ease, but it was his feet that nearly gifted Fiorentina a goal on the quarter-hour, when the pressure forced him into a major mistake, kicking the ball right to Bonaventura at the edge of the penalty area, but
Allegri’s long-lost son the midfielder rushed things and skied his shot.
Two of Fiorentina’s best opportunities in the first period came within two minutes of each other, the first being a Biraghi free kick that didn’t quite drop in time and then a lightning-quick counter that saw Ikone fire a hair’s breadth from Perin’s back post from a tight angle. Ten minutes later Torreira came close from the top of the box but fired just over.
Meanwhile, Juve simply couldn’t get out of their own half. They didn’t register a shot until two minutes before the break, when Vlahovic’s effort from long range was blocked and then trickled into the hands of Terracciono.
Juve went into the half having been outshot 10-1, with Vlahovic having only picked up 19 touches, none of which came in the Fiorentina penalty area. Both managers made changes on the flanks at the break, Allegri sending on Cuadrado for Ake while Italiano was forced to send on Venuti after Odorizola came off the worst in a challenge with Rabiot moments before halftime.
Fiorentina came the closest they’d come to taking the game only three minutes after the restart, when Torreira split the defense with an excellent through ball for Ikone. De Sciglio couldn’t make the stop but may have put him off just enough in his efforts, and the Frenchman’s latest effort to find the back post popped off the post.
Fiorentina continued on the front foot, forcing Perin into a pair of saves before Juve finally made their first genuinely threatening move, when Vlahovic finally got in behind Igor to latch on to a long ball from De Sciglio. He tried one of his trademark chips over the keeper, but Terracciano. perhaps familiar with his old teammate, stayed tall as long as he could and was able to get his hand to the shot to knock it behind.
As impressive as Fiorentina had been all night long, a press that ferocious can only be sustained for so long, and as the game entered its final phases Juve started to look a little less like a completely dominated side and slowly grew into the match to the point where it started looking at least a little bit possible that they could steal the match. The two ex-Fiorentina men combined to create a dangerous run in the 78th minute, but Cuadrado only ever had eyes for the goal from a tight angle and hit the side netting when he had well-placed help at the back post. Fiorentina, meanwhile, started to see the opportunities dry up, their only two shots in the last half-hour coming as wide efforts by substitute Riccardo Sottil.
And then, as the board for stoppage time went up on the sideline, the ex effect — although perhaps not the ex that everyone was expecting before kickoff — came up to again bite Fiorentina in the rear end, and an unfortunate Venuti lay face-down on the turf inside his goal, after his desperate attempt to stop the ball’s roll failed, weeping as the enormity of the moment came crashing down on him.
MATTIA PERIN - 6.5. Stopped pretty much every shot that was within reach, but his distribution under the press was wonky and he nearly gifted Fiorentina an early lead.
DANILO - 7. Blocked a pair of shots to go along with two tackles and three clearances. Played well in the back three and didn’t let Fiorentina create much danger at all in the box.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. Not a ton in the way of counting stats, but he completely marked both Piatek and Arthur Cabral out of the game, allowing neither of Fiorentina’s main strikers to take a shot. Dude’s been dominant the last month and a half or so.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. A case of the stats versus the eye test that adds up to a minimum pass. He had a lot of problems with the pace of Ikone, much like he did with Samuel Chukwueze against Villarreal last week, but he also racked up a game-high eight clearances, four tackles, and was one of only a few players to register a key pass that led to a shot on target.
MARLEY AKE - 4. This is perhaps the most sympathetic 4 I’ve ever given, seeing as how Ake was asked to do something he doesn’t do in his first career start in an incandescent Stadio Franchi. But he had a torrid time, hardly ever able to hold on to the ball, turning the ball over five times. He looks promising, but needs to be in his natural position to thrive.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5. Completed only 82 percent of his passes and didn’t put any lasting impact on the game. The hope was Arthur’s presence would allow him to do some work further forward, but the whole team, and especially the midfield, played so poorly that he was rarely ever in the opposing half to do anything.
ARTHUR - 6. Completed 96 percent of his passes and made a few good plays, especially in defense. Still needs to work on releasing his passes just that fraction earlier, but he’s growing into a genuine roll in this midfield.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Couldn’t do anything to break through the Fiorentina press, although he did make three tackles and triggered the move that ended in the own goal. He doesn’t have the qualities to make a midfield with Locatelli and Arthur work as well as it could.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 7. Turned in an excellent shift on the left, picking up a key pass and three tackles, including an excellent sliding challenge on Ikone early in the second half after the winger burst out on the counterattack. He continues to lay down a marker for more playing time even after Alex Sandro returns.
MOISE KEAN - 5. The caveat here is that Kean saw precious little, if any, service, he lost possession eight times and never menaced Terracciano’s goal, but did give a ton of effort on both the offensive and defensive ends.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5.5. Worked hard to try to get himself past the defense but was well marshaled by the tandem as a pair. It may be that his old mates knew his tricks. Still, he came really close to about as troll-y a goal as you can imagine with that chip that Terracciano had to tip away. Also, big props to him as a sportsman and a human for going to his former teammate Venuti to comfort him after the match was over.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Forced the own goal but also was subject to some bad decision making, including a bad choice to try to force the ball in at the near post in the 78th minute.
ALVARO MORATA - 5. Worked hard but found himself defending more than attacking, and also continually tried to dribble when he should have passed it.
It’s hard to really critique a manager in a game like this. Like Saturday’s game against Empoli, Allegri had only 13 first-team outfield players at his disposal, and one of the ones that was in the squad (Bonucci) wasn’t fully fit. Players were playing out of position, players were gassed, and Allegri resorted to giving Ake his full debut out of position just so he’d have Cuadrado as a card in his pocket for later. But with all the injuries, to soak up pressure and hope something popped on the other end was really the only option.
Fortunately, they did both of those things. It’s a testament to the way he prepared this makeshift back line that they held as well as they did. They really only got beaten when Fiorentina had the space to counterattack them. Otherwise they held very well, only really ever giving up a few potshots from outside the box. That said, it’s still a little upsetting to see Juventus so unable to get themselves out of the press. Allegri once thoroughly broke the press of the likes of Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund teams, but now they struggle to get through a press even when a lower level team manages it.
Eliminating that as a weakness is going to be crucial to the growth of this team, because contending teams at all levels will go out hard and it’s going to be very difficult for Juve to get anywhere against those sides if they can’t break out of their own half. Dealing with the press has to be priority No. 1 on Allegri’s list in training.
Fortunately, Allegri mentioned in his pre-game press conference that Paulo Dybala, Federico Bernardeschi, and Daniele Rugani will be available starting on Sunday, so reinforcements are nigh, and maybe we won’t have to see the team slogging through games like this much more often.
The second leg will be played about seven weeks from now (it’s at the end fo April but a date has yet to be made official). Hopefully, Juve isn’t going to be quite so shot through with injuries for that game.
Because the Coppa Italia has yet to join European competition in the modern age by dropping the away goals rule (that will happen starting next year) this away goal is hugely meaningful. Juve will advance to the final with any win or draw, while a one-goal loss could trigger either extra time or a loss of the tie, depending on what exactly the scenario is.
Next on the team’s docket is a home match with Spezia on Sunday, followed by an away game against Sampdoria before the finale of the Champions League round of 16 against Villarreal comes their way.