Andrea Pirlo came to Juventus' rescue once again, scoring the lone goal with a superb free-kick as Juve won 1-0 at 10-man Fiorentina on Thursday evening to advance to the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals.
With Juventus needing only a single goal to advance, Pirlo rifled in a 71st-minute free-kick moments after Fiorentina's Gonzalo Rodriguez had been sent off for his second bookable offence. Coupled with last week's 1-1 draw at Juventus, the Bianconeri moved into the quarter-finals with a 2-1 aggregate victory.
It was the second time in as many games that Pirlo had played the role of set-piece hero for Juve. On Sunday, the 34-year-old Italian international midfielder propelled Juventus to a Serie A victory at Genoa with a goal from a 89th-minute free-kick.
"I am happy to have scored two important goals in under a week, as it means we can get closer to the objectives we set ourselves," Pirlo said, per Football Italia. "How do I decide which way to take free kicks? I make my decision at the last moment. This time I looked at the wall and decided to hit it with more power."
This time, the stage was the Europa League round-of-16 second leg at Fiorentina's Stadio Artemio Franchi. And after playing hero once again, Pirlo has put Juventus in good position for European glory this spring.
Leading Serie A by a massive 14 points, Juventus look certain to win a third straight league title. After seeing off Fiorentina's stiff challenge, the Bianconeri must rank among the favourites for the Europa League crown as well.
"People say that the Europa League isn’t of great interest to us and we find that slightly irritating," Juventus assistant manager Angelo Alessio said, per Juventus.com. "We want to go all the way in every competition.
Alessio added: "We were up against it for the first 10 to 15 minutes or so but then created several chances of our own. Eventually, the sending off and free-kick saw us through."
Fiorentina, meanwhile, are 10 points behind third-placed Napoli in the race for Italy's final Champions League spot but remain well-positioned to qualify for next season's Europa League via their league finish. The Viola are set to face Napoli in the Coppa Italia final on May 3.
After scoring a late equaliser in last week's first leg, Fiorentina settled into the second leg quickly and immediately started creating chances. Josip Ilicic sent a long-range shot off target in the second minute, and Mario Gomez skimmed the post a minute later after beating Gianluigi Buffon.
Juventus soon gained a foothold, and Fernando Llorente headed off target in the seventh minute. Paul Pogba's 24th-minute header then forced Fiorentina goalkeeper Neto into a spectacular save, but Pogba had already been ruled offside.
Fiorentina came close again in the 28th minute, as David Pizarro volleyed just wide of the bottom corner. At the other end, Neto smothered Carlos Tevez's shot in the 29th minute and saved again from Pogba two minutes later.
The hosts' best chance of the first half came in the 39th minute, when Ilicic took advantage of a poor clearance by Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini. But after dribbling to the edge of the box, Ilicic blasted his shot well over the bar.
With the match still tied 0-0 at half-time, the two teams produced end-to-end action in the early moments of the second 45 minutes. Buffon saved Borja Valero's free-kick in the 52nd minute and again from Juan Cuadrado's powerful strike five minutes later.
Arturo Vidal had Juventus' best chance yet in the 59th minute, but he headed off target from Mauricio Isla's cross. Pogba shot off target five minutes later, and Tevez had another effort saved in the 66th minute.
The game changed with just over 20 minutes left, as Fiorentina went down to 10 men. Rodriguez, who had already been booked in the first half, drew his second booking—and subsequent red card—in the 69th minute for a foul on Llorente.
From the resulting free-kick, Pirlo curled his shot into the top corner to give Juventus the crucial breakthrough goal. Leading 1-0, Juventus came close again in the 82nd minute through Stephan Lichtsteiner and again eight minutes later through Vidal's header.
But the misses didn't matter, and Pirlo's lone goal again made the difference.
|Fiorentina Player Ratings vs. Juventus|
|Massimo Ambrosini (for Pizarro, 46')||6.3|
|Alessandro Matri (for Gomez, 64')||5.9|
|Facundo Roncaglia (for Ilicic, 72')||6.1|
|Ratings via WhoScored.com|
|Juventus Player Ratings vs. Fiorentina|
|Stephan Lichtsteiner (for Isla, 76')||6.7|
|Pablo Osvaldo (for Llorente, 88')||6.4|
|Ratings via WhoScored.com|
Fiorentina play at Napoli in Serie A on Sunday. Juventus play at Catania the same day.