Rome (AFP) – Napoli slowed Juventus’s drive for a sixth straight Italian title by coming from behind to share the spoils in a high-stakes Serie A showdown on Sunday.
The 1-1 draw on the night Gonzalo Higuain went back to his former club leaves Massimiliano Allegri’s squad six points clear of second-placed Roma, the only team with a realistic chance of catching the Turin giants with eight rounds of matches left to play.
It was not a vintage performance from Juve, but with another meeting with Napoli looming in the semi-final of the Italian Cup, and an upcoming Champions League clash with Barcelona to think about, Allegri shrugged that off.
“A great squad also needs to know how to suffer and to be humble. We have to be first in May and then nobody will remember we didn’t play well in Napoli,” he said.
Napoli are ten points adrift in third – with Lazio hot on their heels in the fight for Italy’s third Champions League place.
Coach Maurizio Sarri said he felt his side could have taken all three points. “It is a shame we didn’t win. We had the chances to. But when a team plays like that, the coach can go home with every type of emotion except disappointment.”
With Higuain making his first return to his former club in a Juventus shirt, it was always going to be a highly-charged affair and the Argentine striker was treated to over a minute of uninterrupted whistling when he walked out at a stadium where he was once idolised.
– Hamsik’s sweet finish –
But the visitors quickly silenced the San Paolo crowd by claiming a 7th minute opener after the Napoli defence failed to adequately clear a punt towards their penalty area.
Germany midfielder Sami Khedira pounced on the loose ball and played a slick one-two with Croatia’s Miralem Pjanic before firing the champions ahead.
Napoli dominated from then on. But clear chances were scarce before club captain Marek Hamsik combined with Belgian winger Dries Martens to equalise on the hour mark, beating Juve skipper Gianluigi Buffon with a sweet finish that found the top corner.
Higuain, whose 36 goals last season fired Napoli into the Champions League, had a subdued match in front of supporters who have branded him a ‘Judas’ over the manner of his departure in a 90 million euros ($96 million) deal concluded after a secret medical and without any time for goodbyes.
“It is not easy to have the entire stadium against you,” Allegri said. “It wasn’t an easy night for him because he is a sensitive guy, but he had a good match.”
AC Milan’s hopes of a return to European football next season suffered a setback earlier in the day when they were held to a 1-1 draw at lowly Pescara.
The dropped points left Vincenzo Montella’s squad in seventh, two places and four points adrift of the final Europea League qualifying spot. “We have made it harder for ourselves but the door has not been shut,” Montella said.
– Lazio rising –
The win enabled Atalanta, the season’s surprise package, to leapfrog Inter Milan into fifth spot ahead of Inter’s Monday night clash with Sampdoria.
Argentine striker Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez was again the visitors’ hero, notching a hat-trick to take his tally for the season to 14 league goals.
Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko had kept Roma’s title hopes ticking over on Saturday with both goals in a 2-0 win over Empoli.
The former Manchester City forward, a revelation this season after initially struggling in Italy, took his tally for the season to 33 goals in all competitions – eclipsing the previous club record held by, among others, veteran captain Francesco Totti.
Lazio boosted their hopes of Champions League football next season by coming from behind to snatch a 2-1 win at struggling Sassuolo that moves them to within four points of Napoli.
The clash was the first of three in eight days that could define the Roman club’s season.
On Tuesday, Inzaghi’s men will defend a 2-0 first-leg advantage in their Italian Cup semi-final with local rivals Roma before hosting Napoli at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday.
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