It had to be him, didn’t it? All the talk going into Friday night’s clash centered around Federico Bernardeschi.
How vociferous would the Viola faithful be on his first return back to the arena where they once idolised him? Would he receive the Roberto Baggio circa 1991 treatment? And furthermore, how would the 23-year-old handle the pressure of the whistles that would be rained down upon him?
Well the answer came in the 55th minute, with a casually stroked free kick into the bottom right hand corner of Marco Sportiello’s goal. Bernardeschi was substituted 20 minutes after, to a chorus of boos – not to be wholly unexpected - and fingers pointing him towards birds in the sky, yet the Tuscan native handled the occasion remarkably well. His show of maturity will please Max Allegri, who has used the attacker somewhat sparingly since signing. This was only his sixth league start of the season.
Gonzalo Higuain’s smart, clinical goal capped off a Juventus victory that, whilst having the odd scary moment, was relatively comfortable. Contrary to what Allegri said in the build-up to the game about focusing solely on Fiorentina, Juve clearly had their minds on Tottenham Hotspur, and played within themselves to get the job done as effortlessly as possible.
It’s indicative of where La Viola currently are as a team that their opponents could go into this game with that mentality and still emerge victorious. Stefano Pioli’s men worked hard and pressured the away side, but the repeated lack of investment from the Della Valle brothers was clear for all to see.
Had Gil Dias’ effort not come back off the post and into the hands of Gigi Buffon, the game could’ve swung in a different direction. Yet therein lies the fine margin of success and failure, in investing and refusing to. Fiorentina lacked that sharpness, that finesse, in the final third of the pitch, which was best personified by Bernardeschi and Higuain.
VAR, which has generally been a positive addition to Serie A this season, displayed its flaws in full glory when Fiorentina were awarded a penalty… and then weren’t. Cholito Simeone’s challenge on Alex Sandro in the lead up was visibly a foul, yet it wasn’t spotted by the referees. So came three minutes of nothing, three minutes of everyone waiting, whilst the officials inspected the footage. Three minutes can be a long time. Then came the affirmative no.
Pioli’s insistence in his post-match interview that the decision changed the course of the match is fanciful; Dias’ shot off the post came 20 minutes after the VAR decision, and by his own admission, Jordan Veretout might’ve missed the penalty.
For the champions, it’s evident the midfield struggles without the dynamism of Blaise Matuidi. Such has been his impact this season that Miralem Pjanic in particular suffers without the Frenchman patrolling by his side.
Sami Khedira, in fine form as of late, had another of his ‘invisible’ games, where he is seemingly there in body, but not in spirit, or anything else for that matter. Juve will be hoping for a speedy Matuidi recovery, as a trio of Khedira, Pjanic and Claudio Marchisio lack the legs to dominate a midfield battle.
Victory has momentarily granted Juve top spot once again, trading it like a hot potato with Napoli in recent weeks. The Bianconeri have lost once in the last 16 games and conceded a single goal. Both teams are winning matches at such a relentless pace, they’re on course to break the 100-point barrier.
The focus once more turns to Napoli, who face Lazio in a vital game tonight. With Juve purring along nicely, they can ill afford to slip up.