Fiorentina Expose The Weaknesses Of A Fragile Juventus
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For anyone wondering, let’s get the essentials out of the way: Fiorentina versus Juventus is a big match. This is truer for one side than the other, however. Before Sunday’s game, Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci told the press that while the fixture was the most important date in most Florentines’ football calendar, it was just another game for the reigning champions.
This is the problem with one-sided rivalries. To skim over the basics, the animosity Fiorentina fans hold for Juventus can be traced back over many decades. There was a number of heavy defeats in the early days. Then there was the accusation in Florence that the final day of the season in 1982 was marred by suspect refereeing decisions, taking the title from Florence to Turin by the slimmest of margins.
This was compounded when both sides faced one another in the 1990 UEFA Cup final. The first leg seemed to be decided by poor officiating and the second leg was a goalless draw. The Juve trophy cabinet was swelling, while Fiorentina fans were left wondering what could have been. Such victories always breed contempt.
But the worst was yet to come. In the wake of the UEFA Cup final, Juventus swept in and paid a world record transfer fee for Fiorentina’s best player, Roberto Baggio. There were literal riots on the streets of Florence. Chains and bricks were thrown, as were Molotov cocktails. Fifty people were injured, nine were arrested. The decades since Baggio’s transfer have seen a bitter rivalry grow even more fierce.
In that time, Juventus have seen huge success (and punishing failure, admittedly) while Fiorentina have had to settle for the occasional cup, relegation and bankruptcy. Bonucci is right in that the rivalry is particularly one-sided when it comes to success. But that only makes it all the sweeter for Fiorentina fans when their team triumphs. This past Sunday, Fiorentina played Juventus off the park. It was a particularly gratifying victory.
Given the Viola fans’ feelings towards Juventus, the Stadio Artemio Franchi was rippling with expectation. A pre-kick off tribute to former midfielder Giancarlo Antognoni marked the legend’s return to a director role at the club. As Fiorentina began the game, the effect the crowd had on the players was clear.
In the opening minutes, the side in purple set the tone for the match. They crashed into tackles, robbed the ball from the reigning champions and refused to allow any Juventus player to dwell in possession. Juventus were shook. Their usually infallible back line of Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli were far from at their best. As Nikola Kalinic dogged their every move, pass after pass failed to find its target.
In midfield it was a similar story. Sami Khedira started the game as he would finish it: a ghost glimpsed only occasionally, seen hurling himself to the floor more often than completing a pass. Stefano Sturaro did not shy away from possession although he probably should have, as he struggled to do anything at all with the ball.
Claudio Marchisio, so typically reliable, was isolated and unable to set the rhythm of the game. This left the Juventus strikers on their own, feeding on scraps, while the wing-backs were unable to rest for a second.
From the Fiorentina perspective, there was much to be admired. Almost constant pressure for the first twenty minutes failed to result in a goal but it was enough to keep the crowd purring. Borja Valero, Matias Vecino and Milan Badelj dominated the midfield, passing and tackling with ease. At the back, the repurposed midfielder Carlos Sanchez slotted effortlessly into a back three and casually slipped the world’s most expensive striker into his pocket. But the real star was Federico Chiesa.
Son of Enrico Chiesa, Federico has been one of the highlights in a spluttering season in Florence. While forward Federico Bernadeschi might so often take the spotlight for Fiorentina, the match against Juventus belonged to the teenager. Put simply, he terrorized the Juventus backline, who seemed unable to deal with him. This resulted in cynical fouls from all comers, the Juve players trying anything to slow down the rampaging Chiesa.
But for all of Fiorentina’s dominance in the first half hour, they had nothing to show for it. There was a sensation that, as terrible as Juventus had been and as wonderful as Fiorentina had played, there was no way this could be repeated after the interval. They needed a goal, something to show for their dazzling display.
It came seven minutes from half time. Just as the crowd was beginning to lull ever so slightly, Bernadeschi pounced onto a loose ball around the Juventus box. All game, the pressing of the Juventus backline had been effective, and the youngster found himself in a yard of space. Nikola Kalinic noticed. The Croatian was on his way before the Italian had started to control the ball. Slipped through the defensive line, it almost looked as though Kalinic had taken it too deep, too close to the by-line. There was no way in which he could finish, especially not against Buffon. But this was Fiorentina’s night.
The finish was excellent, capping off a moment of pure ruthlessness. The home side took the lead going into half time and the crowd were once again on their feet.
Neither side made a change at half time. After being so resolutely subjugated in the first half, it would have been sensible to expect a different Juventus side to emerge from the tunnel. Miralem Pjanic had been warming up during the break but seeing as the starting XI had got their team into this mess, it seemed that Massimiliano Allegri was certain they should be the ones to get the team out of it. It was not to be.
Fiorentina did not rest on their laurels. Right away, they worked to the same blueprint which had borne so much earlier success. Juventus, improving, began to string a few passes together. But another Croatian popped up to double Fiorentina’s lead. Badelj, perhaps inspired by the recent speculation about his future, whipped in a speculative cross on the 54th minute. The Juventus defense seemed perplexed. Along with most of the crowd, they followed the movement of Chiesa as the teenager attacked the ball.
He failed to make contact, however, with the ball sailing past him and into the net. As the players wheeled away in celebration, Chiesa wagged his finger at his teammate, assuring him that he had not touched the ball. The crowd didn’t care who scored. They were having the time of their lives.
But the delirious glee of the crowd didn’t last long. The second goal seemed to have rumbled Juventus into life. Badelj’s goal brought with it echoes of Isoroku Yamamoto’s sentiment, had they only served to awaken a sleeping giant? Three minutes later, Gonzalo Higuain leapt onto a bungled ball and halved the gap between the two sides. With thirty minutes still to play, the crowd began to grow noticeably tense.
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) January 15, 2017
Understandably, Fiorentina became more defensive. They eased off in their pressing. Some players, Chiesa especially, were beginning to tire. Juventus made attacking substitutions. It nearly worked. The latter period of the game was replete with chances, from goal mouth scrambles to Paulo Dybala astonishingly missing the target when through on goal. Juventus began to bypass their non-existent midfield and went more direct. But they couldn’t break down the opposition.
Indeed, in the dying minutes of the game, the best chance fell to Fiorentina. Josip Illicic was put clear through on goal and somehow contrived to scupper the chance. The worry was that it would prove to be costly. It did not.
As the final whistle went, Juventus were beaten. The Fiorentina fans were delighted, sonorous. Even if Bonucci was right, that this was only a matter of importance for Florence, then the manner of the victory brought even greater joy. Playing the reigning champions off the park does not happen too often. It was a moment and a result which the Fiorentina players and fans will be right to savor.
But what does this mean for the title race? Fiorentina are surely out of the equation, searching now for a chance to qualify for Europe. A Europa League tie against Borussia Mönchengladbach might present the best remaining chance this season for a bit of glory. They’ll always have the match against Juventus, however. That’s the thing about beating fierce rivals. All other results pale in comparison.
For Juventus, things don’t change too much. Their lead is shortened, especially with the chasing pack winning. They face their own European obligations, with victory in the Champions League taking a clear precedence this year. This setback against Fiorentina will be less troubling as a result than as a performance. It’s difficult to understate how poor they were for the majority of the game.
Though they are still likely to win the league, the nature of this particular loss asks important questions, especially of their midfield. After the losses of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba, there is cause for concern in the center of the park.
Though the result was not the first loss of Juventus’s season, nor a mortal blow, it does provide yet another template that other teams might use to beat them. Not for a long time has this Juventus side appeared so mortal. Though they might not have struck the killer blow to Juventus’s season, Fiorentina will delight in showing other sides where their enemy’s weak spots lie. In such a bitter rivalry, that could be the most satisfying victory of all.