For the third time this month, Fiorentina and Juventus locked horns, meeting at the Stadio Artemio Franchi on Thursday evening to complete their Europa League encounter. A highly partisan crowd packed the stadium, buoyed by the fact the Bianconeri Ultra had decided to boycott the fixture.
With a place in the quarter-finals at stake, both teams were as close to full strength as possible.
Antonio Conte’s team entered Viola territory knowing they had to score at least once. They were already trailing on aggregate to Mario Gomez’ crucial away goal in last week’s first leg, and they would be desperate to continue their excellent goal scoring form in 2013-14.
Their home-field advantage clearly handed Fiorentina the early impetus, with Vincenzo Montella’s side starting brightly as Mario Gomez shot narrowly wide from a wonderfully weighted through ball.
After an opening 10 minutes, during which Fiorentina fully dominated, Juventus, however, slowly gained a foothold in the match.
With Giuseppe Rossi looking on from the stands, the game became open with a raft of chances at either end in a hectic first half. Both sides seemed extremely nervous before the decisive moment, and it would be no surprise which player stepped up to separate the two teams.
Fernando Llorente got the better of defender Gonzalo Rodriguez—the Fiorentina man resorting to fouling on the edge of the box. It was his second bookable offence, leaving the Viola undermanned and crucially presenting Andrea Pirlo with the kind of set-piece opportunity the midfielder craves.
As the 34-year-old stood behind the wall, everyone in the stadium knew exactly what was about to happen. His career has proved that his precision makes opposing goalkeepers almost powerless to prevent the inevitable attempt at goal.
He had already demonstrated his match-winning ability in Sunday’s victory over Genoa, and he would do so again here.
Unlike that floating, curled finish, however, he would drive a powerful shot into the far top corner, which Neto had no chance of stopping. Such was the power and precision of Pirlo’s effort that the Brazilian stopper came nowhere near the ball, despite starting on the correct side of the goal.
It was the fifth time the Azzurri legend had found the net with a free kick this season, and it was his 11th since joining the Bianconeri in the summer of 2011.
“I think Pirlo is the best in the world at free kicks,” said Angelo Alessio to Mediaset at full time (h/t Football Italia). It is hard to argue with the Juventus assistant coach’s assessment.
The former Milan maestro is now just three goals short of Sinisa Mihajlovic’s all-time Serie A record of 27, a tally he will surely surpass in the not-too-distant future.
What he also proved tonight was that he still has much to offer the Bianconeri as his contract expires in the summer.
Juventus appear determined not to repeat the mistake of Pirlo’s former club, recognising just what he has brought to Turin over the past three seasons. Beppe Marotta firmly believes a new deal is close to being agreed to, the director general telling Mediaset (h/t Football Italia) this week that he is “confident that he [Pirlo] will continue with this relationship.”
With his second match-winning goal in four days, the midfielder delivered yet another fillip for La Madama on Thursday evening, stating that he will remain with the club beyond his current contract.
"I don’t know if the contract will be this month, but I do know that I’m staying at Juventus,” he said at full time (via Football Italia)—words that will bring almost as big a smile to Bianconeri supporters as his goal did to vanquish la Viola.
Despite the fact he turns 35 before the World Cup, he remains a vital member of this all-conquering side, contributing as much as anyone to their current dominance of Serie A.
He’s one of those players who allows you to dream at any given moment when he has the ball at his feet.