Milan (AFP) – Gonzalo Higuain hit a fairytale winner as Juventus edged the Argentine’s former club Napoli 2-1 in Turin on Saturday to stretch their lead to five points at the top of Italy’s Serie A.
Higuain, who hit a Serie A record of 36 goals for Napoli last season, has become a hate figure at the San Paolo stadium after moving to Juventus for an Italian transfer record fee of 90m euros.
Although he can expect a red-hot welcome from Napoli fans, many of whom burned his shirt in disgust at his move, when the southerners host the champions on April 2, Higuain was mindful not to celebrate after hitting his seventh league goal of the season.
A superb volley by Leonardo Bonucci gave Juventus a 50th minute lead, only for Jose Callejon to beat Gianluigi Buffon four minutes later from Lorenzo Insigne’s superb chip.
A tense and tactically-tight affair, which saw a number of clashes between players, looked to be heading for a 1-1 draw.
But when Higuain’s cross for Sami Khedira spilled back into the striker’s path, he made no mistake with a first-time drive that beat Pepe Reina down low on 70 minutes.
Juventus, aiming for a record sixth consecutive ‘scudetto’ this season, now have a five-point lead on Roma ahead of their visit to Empoli.
Napoli remain third at seven points adrift and could drop to fourth if AC Milan account for lowly Pescara at the San Siro on Sunday.
It took Juventus 12 minutes to fashion a decent chance but after breaking on the counter Higuain’s lay-off to Mario Mandzukic had too much pace, and Reina had time to rush out and smother at the Croat’s feet.
Juve earned two yellow cards in succession, Giorgio Chiellini cautioned for a late challenge on Allan and Alex Sandro’s name going into the book after he chopped Dries Mertens down from behind as tensions mounted.
Higuain should have done better on 24 minutes later when he latched on to Khedira’s slide rule pass behind the Napoli defence, only to be thwarted by Vlad Chiriches’s late challenge.
Napoli’s slick passing game impressed, but without injured Polish striker Arkaduisz Milik, bought as Higuain’s replacement from Ajax, the visitors lacked an aerial threat.
When Brazilian midfielder Allan powered towards goal unchallenged, his tame drive from 25 yards gave Buffon no trouble.
Injury to Chiellini prompted coach Massimiliano Allegri to introduce Juan Cuadrado shortly before the interval but the Colombian, who came off the bench to hit the winner in a 1-0 Champions League win at Lyon two weeks ago, was beaten to the opener.
A messy clearance by Faouzi Ghoulam following a corner caught Bonucci’s attention and he turned quickly to smash a superb volley past Reina and into the roof of the net five minutes after the restart.
The match sprang into life and on a Napoli counter moments later Mertens narrowly failed to connect with Lorenzo Insigne’s inswinger from the left.
From the corner, Ghoulam’s delivery found Koulibaly at the far post but the Senegal defender’s cross back towards goal was headed out by Mandzukic.
It was encouraging stuff from Napoli and they earned just rewards only two minutes later when a delightful Insigne chip found Callejon in behind the Juve defence.
The Spain international controlled perfectly and smashed a low drive under Buffon to pull the scores level on 54 minutes.
With seven goals in 11 appearances, it equalled his total league tally for last season.
Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri replaced a tiring Insigne with Emanuele Giaccherini on the hour but it was Juve who struck next, Higuain driving his low drive through the legs of Chiriches to leave Reina, his former teammate, rooted to the spot.