Juventus are two games away from an unbeaten season, their title hopes were knocked by a late Lecce equaliser – but Delio Rossi's clash with Adem Ljajic takes centre stage
Just when it seemed the Scudetto race was over, this happens. With 84 minutes gone on Wednesday night, Juventus were 1-0 up at home to Lecce and set to maintain their three-point lead – effectively four, since they hold the tie-breaker over second-placed Milan – at the top of the table with two games to play. Their 18th-placed guests were yet to take a shot on target and had been playing with 10 men for the best part of 30 minutes.
Then, a routine backpass from Andrea Barzagli to Gigi Buffon. The goalkeeper, under no immediate pressure, miscontrolled, and in the blink of an eye Andrea Bertolacci stole in to dispossess him and roll the ball into an empty net. As Juventus Stadium fell into stunned silence, over in Milan San Siro erupted. The Bianconeri still control their own destiny but, with their rivals beating Atalanta at home, the gap is back down to a single point.
That it should be Buffon offering hope to Milan was unlikely indeed. He, along with Andrea Pirlo, has been the star performer of this still unbeaten Juventus side, conceding only one goal in the previous eight games and performing throughout the season at a level beyond anything he had achieved in some years. It was a fact recognised by the fans in Turin, who after a moment's pause retook to singing his name with gusto. Alessandro Del Piero ran back from the front to give him a high five.
And yet the most remarkable aspect of Buffon's blunder was that it still managed not to be the biggest talking point of the night in Serie A. Even the reopening of Italy's most gripping title race since Calciopoli could not distract a nation's attention from the sight of a manager throwing punches at one of his own players in the dugout.
Little more than half an hour had been played of Fiorentina's match against Novara when Delio Rossi decided to withdraw Adem Ljajic. The Serbian playmaker had been obliged to play out of position up front due to injuries, but nevertheless his performance to that point had been insipid. That Rossi felt compelled to make a change so soon was certainly understandable, given that relegation-threatened Fiorentina were already two goals down at home.
Ljajic, though, was unimpressed – telling the manager exactly what he thought of the decision as he walked to the bench, offering a sarcastic thumbs-up as he did. For Rossi, it was an act of insubordination too far. The manager launched himself at the player, falling into the dugout as he did so, before appearing to throw at least one punch.
The whole incident lasted only a few seconds, the pair separated sufficiently quickly that by the time the referee Antonio Giannoccaro was alerted to the scuffle by his fourth official, Rossi had already returned to the technical area and resumed calling out instructions to his players on the field. The official duly took no action, so Rossi remained in place, taking the team talk at the interval and returning for the second half.
He will not be back for Fiorentina's match against Lecce at the weekend, however, the team's co-owner Andrea Della Valle informing Rossi at full time that he would be fired. It was an act taken with great regret. "This was the most painful decision of my 10 years in football – Delio Rossi had never done such a thing before in his life," Della Valle said. "But in the space of just a few seconds, months of stress came pouring out. He was provoked, but not provocation, even a serious one, can justify those few seconds."
There had been no other option for a club who have always sought under the Della Valles to send out a positive message off the pitch as well as staying competitive on it. A club that have promoted Save the Children in place of a shirt sponsor, and that created the Cartellino Viola initiative – awarding the teams or players who show the greatest act of fair play each month a purple card, to offset all the reds and yellows we see dished out to the badly behaved. The club were quick to confirm that Ljajic, too, will face punishment.
The Fiorentina executive Vincenzo Guerini – who coached at various clubs for more than 20 years before moving into commentary, then taking on his present role – will replace Rossi until the end of the season. Rossi is yet to speak to the press, and it will be fascinating to see if he chooses to do so. His actions on Wednesday were a long way out of character for one of Italy's most good-natured managers. It seems likely that, as Della Valle suggested, his actions were borne out of long-term causes as much as any immediate provocation.
This year's Fiorentina side have developed a reputation as one of the most brattish in recent memory, from Ljajic's apparent lack of application – Rossi's predecessor, Sinisa Mihajlovic, famously accused him of "eating too much Nutella and playing too much PlayStation" – to Alessio Cerci arriving late for training sessions, while the latter's girlfriend has goaded Fiorentina fans after defeats on Facebook. Last season Cerci made headlines after parking his Maserati in a bay reserved for police, then dismissing officers' initial requests that he relocate with a dismissive: "First I'll eat, then I'll move it."
Key players such as Riccardo Montolivo and Juan Manuel Vargas have performed well below what they are capable of, and the former is now set to join Milan on a free transfer after his contract was allowed to run down. Respect towards Rossi has been lacking, just as it was for Mihajlovic. Shortly before kick-off on Wednesday, Houssine Kharja is reported to have smashed a door before storming out of the stadium upon learning that he had not been selected.
Such behaviour has, in turn, earned the players the contempt of their own supporters. Rossi was cheered enthusiastically by the crowd for his attack on Ljajic, chants of "Delio, give them a kicking" ringing out from the Curva Fiesole. With Fiorentina subsequently recovering from a 2-0 down to snatch a draw that takes them to within a point of safety, many will even have felt that the ends justified the means.
There was a time when such incidents might have been swept under the rug; in 1983-84 Pescara's Tom Rosati assaulted Vittorio Cozzella during a match against Como with far greater gusto than Rossi did Ljajic and not only kept his job but fielded the attacker in his starting lineup the very next week. But although Rossi apologised sincerely to Ljajic, the rest of the team and Della Valle at full time, there could be no such playing down of an incident that had gone viral online long before the match even reached half-time.
For Italian football it was yet more unwelcome publicity after a fortnight in which Genoa's players were forced to strip on the pitch by furious Ultras, then Lazio's players and directors stormed a pitch after being duped by a whistle from the stands. With a match-fixing investigation looming, in which significant numbers of top-flight players and teams are implicated, there is much cause for unease.
So much so that the nation's best-supported club are struggling to secure top-billing, even as they stand only two games away from becoming the first Italian team ever to go unbeaten over a 38-game season. Just this once, they may be grateful for that fact.
• Juventus's match against Cagliari has been moved to from an afternoon kick-off to an evening one on Sunday – at the club's request – so that it kicks off at the same time as the Milan derby. League authorities were anxious to avoid suggestions of fixture timing affecting the title race, but risk incurring the considerable wrath of Serie A's broadcast partner, Sky. When the TV rights were up for sale in 2009 teams specifically agreed that concurrent kick-offs should only be required on the final week of the season. To flip-flop now has also created a further dilemma over Lecce and Genoa's fixtures. Lecce trail Genoa by three points after the latter beat Cagliari on Wednesday and would like to kick-off at the same time as their relegation rivals this weekend. That, though, creates a more significant logistical headache than Juventus's change – at present Lecce v Fiorentina is scheduled for Saturday, and Udinese-Genoa for Sunday.
• As for Milan, their fans were just relieved to discover that the message flashing up on the scoreboard announcing Lecce's equaliser was correct, unlike the one (noted below the line by quidellini) that claimed Cesena had equalised against them a week earlier. Theirs was another confident victory over Atalanta, and if Massimiliano Allegri's words at full time had been uttered by Sir Alex Ferguson, they would most certainly have been classified as mind games. "The last 15 minutes were like being at the theatre waiting for the final act of an opera," the manager said. "Five minutes from the end it seemed as though it was all over. Now, not so much."
• The race for third, meanwhile, may be back down to two after Lazio drew at home to Siena and Inter lost at Parma. The latter represents Andrea Stramaccioni's first defeat and, if there is no shame in losing to a Parma side who have won five of their past six games, then the manner with which Inter threw away the game provided a reminder of how they wound up so far off the pace in the first place. Having taken the lead through Wesley Sneijder, they seemed in control before Lúcio gifted Parma a soft equaliser while trying to dribble away from Sebastian Giovinco on the edge of his own area. Two minutes later Inter were trailing after again giving away possession cheaply. "We'll do the sums at the end," Stramaccioni said afterwards. "In any case, nobody has told me that the Europa League would be such a disaster."
• Napoli and Udinese did each collect three points – beating Palermo and Cesena respectively. For Udinese that meant they had won consecutive Serie A fixtures for the first time since December. There were some disappointing words from Antonio Di Natale, however, disagreeing with the recent comments by Cesare Prandelli, the Italy manager, in support of gay footballers wanting to come out. "I respect and like the manager, but I do not agree with him," said Di Natale. "I am against the idea of going public with such an important decision. How would the fans react?"
Results: Catania 0-1 Bologna, Cesena 0-1 Udinese, Chievo 0-0 Roma, Fiorentina 2-2 Novara, Genoa 2-1 Cagliari, Juventus 1-1 Lecce, Lazio 1-1 Siena, Milan 2-0 Atalanta, Napoli 2-0 Palermo, Parma 3-1 Inter