Struggling Fiorentina team falls to Juventus

Roughly 87 minutes into the Feb. 9 Italian soccer match between Juventus F.C. and ACF Fiorentina, Federico Bernardeschi was sitting on the Juventus bench sluggishly after being substituted. It was probably a fitting microcosm of the ambivalence felt by the 23-year-old winger on his first return to Stadio Artemio Franchi.

Assuming that both clubs stay in the top flight of Italian soccer every year, this annual fixture can be regarded as the “most one-sided hate match,” a phrase coined by James Richardson, the host of the famed television show, “Gazzetta Football Italia.”

The side that is releasing all the hatred is Fiorentina. Fans of La Viola are feeling robbed by Juventus, an emotion especially spurred by the transfer of Fiorentina’s best player Roberto Baggio to Juventus. The tension was palpable in the match, best expressed in a moment at around the 70th minute, when Bernardeschi fell in a contest with Jordan Veretout. Stefano Pioli, the Fiorentina manager, had to restrain Veretout from escalating the already intense atmosphere before it snowballed out of control.

Last summer was no different. When Bernardeschi, a young Fiorentina player of glistening talent who often played with a handsome swerve, transferred to play with his old team’s biggest rival, people in Tuscany justifiably felt angry and helpless.

When Bernardeschi said about the transfer that “it doesn’t get any better than coming here as a player,” it struck a chord within Fiorentina because it echoed a theme that was inherently true but did not satiate the players’ pride for their team. Juventus was a bigger, better club than Fiorentina, a club that resembled a platform for players to achieve prestigious trophies — the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and even the Champions League, a club that could provide something Fiorentina could not.

Fiorentina had won against Juventus twice since 2011, a record that was only bested by A.S. Roma, another rival of Juventus. It was that, and only that, statistic that gave Fiorentina hope, as the club stumbled for the past few rounds with only one win in the last nine matches and Juventus striding forward in the title race by winning eight games consecutively in Serie A.

Perhaps in an effort for Bernardeschi to prove himself, it was suitable that, after having been jeered every time he came within close proximity of the ball, the winger would score a curling free kick in the second half to break the deadlock. Then, Bernardeschi ran to the sidelines and celebrated deliriously with his teammates, further angering the fans of his former club. Somehow, it had to be him.

As if there was not a juicy enough storyline already brewing, the much-debated video assistant referee system interrupted the match in an unpleasant manner, depriving a penalty from Fiorentina that the club deserved. After video review, the referee group decided that before Giorgio Chiellini, the Juventus defender, handled the ball in the box, Marco Benassi was in offside position when Giovanni Simeone pressured Alex Sandro, who gifted the ball to Benassi. However, in further review, it was clear that Simeone never touched the ball in the process, the offside decision should not have been given.

Fiorentina had other chances to take the lead in the first half, when Juventus seemed to have curiously run out of options to break down the opposition. Nearing the halftime whistle, Simeone threaded a through ball to release Gil Dias, who disturbed the tempo of Stephan Lichtsteiner and created space for himself to shoot. Gianluigi "Gigi" Buffon, the heralded goalkeeper who was making his 500th appearance for the Bianconeri, was defeated, but not past the post for a goal.

In the second half, Buffon had to make a leg save from a shot made by Cyril Théréau, a chance derived from a dexterous exchange between Simeone and Federico Chiesa. It was just not meant to be. Gonzalo Higuaín, a victim of another contentious transfer from S.S.C. Napoli to the Torino F.C. club, put the ball to the corner of the goal after an unusually incisive, defense-splitter from the midfield by Chiellini, sealing the victory for the title contender.

For fans in Florence, this game was the most important game of the season; Fiorentina went five games without a win at home. However, for the people associated with the Vecchia Signora, it was just another game on a Friday night, with the team on its way to a hand-wringing battle with Napoli for the Scudetto.