Milan's defeat to champions-elect Juventus could be disastrous for their season, but Fiorentina's bold football is paying off
Iron Man made an appearance at Juventus Stadium on Sunday, strolling around the pitch and doling out high-fives before kick-off. Sadly, the next 90 minutes would contain no such Marvels. Juventus took another big stride towards retaining the Scudetto with a 1-0 victory over Milan, but they won't be revisiting this performance at the 2013 footballing Oscars.
This was a dull game, settled by a penalty – albeit one so perfectly struck by Arturo Vidal that La Repubblica devoted an entire article to its majesty. "There are lots of ways to hit a penalty: with power, off the post, with a chip," wrote Alessandro Vocalelli. "But one like this has probably never been seen before."
If that was a touch hyperbolic then it is no exaggeration to say that defeat has put Milan's season in jeopardy. As recently as two weeks ago, the Rossoneri were cruising towards a top-three finish – the only question on pundits' lips being whether they might catch Napoli in second place, and thereby avoid the potential pitfalls of a Champions League qualifier next season. A fortnight later, they are at risk of missing out on Europe's top competition altogether.
The first signs of a turning tide arrived on 7 April. Sixty-five minutes into their game away to fourth-placed Fiorentina, Milan led 2-0. Their opponents had been reduced to 10 men by the wrongful dismissal of Jan Tomovic, as well as losing another starting centre-back, Stevan Savic, to injury. After beginning the day six points clear in third place, Milan appeared safely on course to extend that advantage to nine.
Instead, they imploded, giving up two penalties as Fiorentina fought back to draw 2-2. Milan continued to unravel after the final whistle had blown – Mario Balotelli talking his way into a three-game suspension (later reduced to two, on appeal) with a few choice words to a goalline official.
The forward's timing could not have been any worse. Milan's next two games were against the top two teams in the table – Napoli and Juventus. A week later, they drew 1-1 with the former at the San Siro. Fiorentina had won 2-0 at Atalanta the previous evening.
Suddenly the Viola were back within touching distance. Victory over Torino on Sunday would place them only one point behind Milan before Massimiliano Allegri's side had even kicked off against Juve. On paper that looked a straightforward prospect. In practice it was anything but. The match that was about to unfold would later be described by Gazzetta dello Sport as "difficult to recount, impossible to explain."
Torino arrived in Florence on the back of a miserable run of form. Not only had they lost six of their previous 10 games, but the defensive solidity that characterised their impressive start to the campaign had now thoroughly deserted them. They had conceded four goals in defeats at Parma and Cagliari, then five at home to Napoli.
Fiorentina, by contrast, were flying, winners of four in a row at home prior to their draw with Milan. No sooner had Sunday's game kicked off than they set about tearing Torino's backline to ribbons. Juan Cuadrado scored almost immediately with a crowd-pleasing chip. By the 33rd minute the hosts led 3-0, Alberto Aquilani and Adem Ljajic extending their advantage.
On the stroke of half-time, however, Paulo Barreto pulled a goal back for Torino. Early in the second half, Mario Santana grabbed another. And then, the coup de grace. With only 13 minutes remaining Alessio Cerci curled a sensational equaliser past Emiliano Viviano from more than 20 yards out.
Of course, it had to be Cerci. Not eight months have passed since Fiorentina said goodbye and good riddance to a player their own supporters had despised. Here was the scapegoat-in-chief for the club's miserable 2011-12 campaign, in which they flirted with relegation and threatened to come apart at the seams. A season that ended with their manager throwing punches at one of his own players in the dugout .
Cerci was not the player in question, though there are plenty of fans who might have taken a swing if given half a chance. He was, in their eyes, the epitome of all that is wrong with the modern footballer – arrogant, smug and aloof . The famous tale goes that Cerci was allegedly caught one night parking his Maserati in a police bay in Florence's city centre. Asked to move the vehicle, the player supposedly replied that he would do so just as soon as he was done grabbing some dinner.
The club finally bade farewell to Cerci last August, at the end of a busy summer in which 18 new players were signed. Fiorentina were keen to make a fresh start under their newly appointed manager Vincenzo Montella and sporting director Daniele Pradè, yet nobody could have predicted quite such immediate success. When the season began, snagging a Europa League berth was viewed as an optimistic goal. Now it is the least this team can expect.
That is in part a tribute to the quality of the players who have arrived but also to the manager's bold approach. It is one thing to sign such creative talents as Borja Valero, David Pizarro and Aquilani, but quite another to field all three of them together without a more destructive "enforcer" alongside.
Regardless of the opposition, Fiorentina have always sought to attack and outmanoeuvre, playing each game on their own terms. That approach has not always paid dividends – Montella's team are, among other things, one of only two sides in Serie A to lose at home to last-placed Pescara this season – but it has certainly been entertaining to watch. The club has bucked a trend in Serie A by increasing its year-on-year attendance figures by more than 20%.
It was that same optimistic outlook that allowed them to bounce back on Sunday. Nine minutes after Cerci had stunned the Stadio Artemio Franchi into silence, Rômulo restored the home side's advantage, prodding the ball past Jean-François Gillet at the end of a dizzying exchange of passes on the edge of the Torino box. Fiorentina won the game, 4-3, and finished the weekend only one point away from the Champions League places.
Whether they have enough left in the tank to catch Milan remains to be seen; the Rossoneri's next five fixtures look a lot more straightforward than their previous three. But with Stevan Jovetic soon to return from injury and Giuseppe Rossi said to be close to making his debut for the club, it should at least be a lively ride.
• It was reported on Monday that Juventus could be made to play their next home game behind closed doors after Kevin-Prince Boateng was racially abused during the pre-game warm-ups. That would certainly be a powerful gesture, given that Juve's next home game, against Palermo, will more than likely be the day they lift the Scudetto. (This is also, of course, a good reason to be sceptical about the likelihood of such a punishment.)
• A separate group of Juventus supporters, meanwhile, protested in defence of their right to insult Mario Balotelli. Said fans waved caricatures of the player's face while hanging a banner which read: "No to racism, yes to jumping". Their reference was to the chant: "Se saltelli, muore Balotelli" – "If you jump, Balotelli dies" – one that they believe should not be considered as racist abuse.
• Napoli have all but sewn up second place, moving seven points clear of Milan thanks to Lorenzo Insigne's spectacular last-minute winner against Cagliari. Aurelio De Laurentiis subsequently caused a stir on Twitter when he wrote: "I dedicate this win to [Cagliari's owner, Massimo] Cellino, [the defender Davide] Astori and [midfielder Radja] Nainggolan." The Napoli owner was seemingly angry with Cellino for placing too high a price on those players when he attempted to sign them in past transfer windows.
• Tommaso Rocchi is beginning to look less like a figure of fun and more like a potential saviour for Inter's season after grabbing his second goal in three league games. Unlike his strike against Atalanta, this one contributed to a winning cause – Inter beating Parma 1-0 at San Siro. This was their first home victory in the league for more than two months, yet also enough to propel them back up to fifth as Roma drew with Pescara.
• Only one point separates Siena in 17th from Genoa and Palermo in the relegation zone after the latter two both recorded 1-1 draws this weekend. Palermo snatched their point in especially dramatic fashion, Josip Ilicic equalising in the 95th minute of the Sicilian derby in Catania. Depressingly enough, a large brawl ensued.
• Antonio Di Natale. Yup, still got it.
Results: Bologna 1-1 Sampdoria, Catania 1-1 Palermo, Fiorentina 4-3 Torino, Genoa 1-1 Atalanta, Inter 1-0 Parma, Juventus 1-0 Milan, Napoli 3-2 Cagliari, Roma 1-1 Pescara, Siena 0-1 Chievo, Udinese 1-0 Lazio.