On the day their rivals Inter were crowned champions, Cristiano Ronaldo kept Juventus’ hopes of finishing in the top four alive by sinking Udinese with a late double that could have saved under-pressure manager Andrea Pirlo’s job.
Reports before kick off claimed that Pirlo could be fired if he failed to win at the Stadio Friuli, and Nahuel Molina’s goal after 10 minutes threatened to derail the visitors’ quest for a consolatory Champions League place, as well as the 2006 World Cup legend prospects of seeking a new employer by the turn of the week.
Argentina international Rodrigo De Paul caught the Old Lady napping with a quick free-kick which sent compatriot Molina down the right flank, unleashing a vicious strike that sneaked past Wojciech Szczesny despite the Poland goalkeeper managed to apply a touch to it.
Taking their lead down the tunnel at half time, Udinese started strongly again after the interval with Tolgay Arslan hitting just wide.
Breaking news: Pirlo to rename his son RONALDO. After the Portuguese helps to secure his job with two late goals pic.twitter.com/z65K8aK4HF
— _Something🐟hy (@Aikoriogie69) May 2, 2021
When Ronaldo had a weak attempt smothered easily, Juventus looked as though they might never find a way through.
But the Serie A top scorer always does, with De Paul going from assist hero to zero by putting an elbow on the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s free-kick in the box.
After CR7 smashed the resulting penalty past Simone Scuffet, who was starting his first game for Udinese since 2018, the visitors went for the jugular.
In the 89th minute, Ronaldo met an Adrien Rabiot cross at the back post and headed in to trigger a passionate sprint from Pirlo down the touchline in celebration, as Juve finished 2-1 winners, leaving them joint second with Atalanta and AC Milan.
“This victory arrived with determination and fight. We once again made life complicated for ourselves but we wanted to bring home the result right to the end and that’s what is important,” Pirlo told Sky Sport Italia.
“It was particularly crucial considering the results from this afternoon. This is a group that’s strong: it wants to fight for its targets and we never lacked that.
“Sometimes the attitude during the game was not worthy of Juventus, but the final embrace was a show of our unity. Now we need to continue with this spirit.
“I thought it’d be a bit less stressful and emotional, but when you win games like this at the end, it gives you the energy to keep going.”
“There’s fatigue, both physical and mental, so when you’re used to challenging for the [Italian title] Scudetto and not the Champions League, something changes. We have adapted – it’s a struggle, but we need to get there.”
Pirlo gave credit where it was due to his former manager, Antonio Conte.“I congratulate Inter and the boss for this deserved title,” he said, discussing the runaway leaders who have won the league with four matches to spare.
“Now we need to change because we want to be the champions again. One era ends after [Juve won] nine consecutive Scudetti – another will now begin and we aim to be back there.”
Udinese director Pierpaolo Marino was less cordial, alleging that Juventus chief Fabio Paratici tried to “intimidate” and “influence” the referee.
“I am angry because my team put in a great performance and I am here to protect their hard work,” he raged.
“The Ronaldo free-kick that led to the penalty should’ve been a free kick in Udinese’s favor instead.
“I am a veteran of football, so I’ve seen before those who cling to complaining over the lack of first-half stoppages to intimidate the referee.
“Then after that, the referee can give a penalty for a free kick that was non-existent. It’s [Juventus winger] Juan Cuadrado who fouls [defender] Jens Stryger-Larsen, not the other way round.
“It was a blatant error and cannot be ignored. I believe the referee was influenced by this verbal assault at half-time by the Juve directors, staff, coaches and players.
“The way they were behaving, it was as if they’d lost because there weren’t 40 seconds of stoppages.
“This sort of thing belongs to football of another era. I spoke out against it then and I’ll speak out against it now.”