Milan (AFP) – Gonzalo Higuain’s 33rd strike of the season maintained Napoli’s bid to secure Champions League football as evergreen striker Luca Toni bid farewell to the game with a cheeky ‘Panenka’ in Verona’s shock 2-1 win over 10-man Juventus.
Roma, looking for a third consecutive runners-up spot after Juventus clinched a record-equalling fifth consecutive title, had piled the pressure on Napoli with a 3-0 thumping of Chievo earlier Sunday.
The Giallorossi held a one-point lead on the Azzurri ahead of a tough encounter at Torino, but having already lost out on a first title in 26 years Napoli are not letting second place, and a chance to return to Europe’s premier club competition, slip so easily.
Higuain broke the deadlock on 12 minutes and Jose Callejon doubled Napoli’s lead before half-time. Although Bruno Peres reduced arrears on 66 minutes Napoli survived a late push to clinch the points.
It bumped Maurizio Sarri’s men back up to second place with a two-point lead on Roma, who face a tough trip to AC Milan in their final game of the season next Saturday, when Napoli host already-relegated Frosinone.
Despite a new club record of 79 points, Napoli coach Sarri warned: “We’re having a great season, with a new points record in Serie A, but there are no easy games so we have to remain focused next week to nail down second place.
“That way, we can say we’ve had an extraordinary season.”
Higuain only last month returned from a three-match ban that has curtailed his bid to at least equal Gunnar Nordahl’s all-time record of 35 goals in a 20-team Serie A season, a feat the Swede achieved with AC Milan in 1950.
After seeing Daniele Padelli palm an early strike round the post, Higuain made no mistake on 12 minutes when he collected Marek Hamsik’s pinpoint pass to send a curling drive past the keeper at the far post to become the first player to score 33 goals in Serie A since Antonio Valentin Angelillo in 1958-59.
When Slovakian midfielder Hamsik was allowed to race to the left byline eight minutes later and whip in a cross for Callejon, the thankful Spaniard blasted low past Padelli at the back post.
– Woodwork denies Higuain –
Higuain should have had his second but saw his low strike from 18 yards hit the bottom of the upright, and the Argentine hit the woodwork a second time when his drive skimmed the crossbar.