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Higuain fires Juve towards scudetto, Napoli close on Roma

Milan (AFP) – Gonzalo Higuain’s brace sent Juventus eight points clear in Serie A with a 2-0 win at struggling Pescara on Saturday, as Napoli capitalised on a Roma slip-up to boost their Champions League hopes.

Argentina striker Higuain, who hit a new league record of 36 goals for Napoli last season, took his tally to 23 to trail Roma’s Edin Dzeko and Andrea Belotti of Torino by two goals in the ‘Capocannoniere’ race.

After successive braces last week in Cup and league duty that kept the Turin giants on course for a third consecutive double, Higuain sealed the points after firing home from a Juan Cuadrado assist in the 23rd minute before beating Vincenzo Fiorillo from Mario Mandzukic’s knock-down just before the interval. 

Roma’s 1-1 draw at home to Atalanta — with Dzeko levelling Jasmin Kurtic’s 22nd minute strike five minutes after the restart — allowed Juventus to extend their lead as they target a record sixth consecutive scudetto. 

The only blip for Massimiliano Allegri’s men was seeing Argentina forward Paulo Dybala, who hit a brace in the 3-0 Champions League quarter-final first leg win over Barcelona in midweek, limp off with an ankle injury four days before the second leg at the Camp Nou.

“Dybala took a knock, but there’s reason to remain optimistic,” Allegri said.

“In Barcelona, we need courage, lucidity and, above all, the desire to hit the back of the net.”

As far as another Serie A title is concerned, Allegri is taking nothing for granted with six games remaining.

“Roma, on paper, can still get to 90 points. So we need to reach at least 91,” added Allegri, whose side sit on 80 from 32 games.

But Roma’s slip-up at the Stadio Olimpico, not a huge surprise given Atalanta are enjoying their best season to date, has made a late fightback highly unlikely.

Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was unequivocal: “Juventus aren’t going to give up an eight-point lead, we have to win every game now and settle for the consolation of second place.

“If you ask me, the championship is over.”

Roma now look set for a remarkable ninth runner-up spot since they last won the scudetto in 2001, although coach Luciano Spalletti warned their chances of finishing second to clinch the last automatic Champions League qualifying spot is now under threat: “We’re going to have to work hard to keep Napoli at bay. They’re a top side.

“Now, we’ll try to consolidate second place.”

– Napoli chasing second –

Those comments came before Dries Mertens, Allan and Jose Callejon scored as Napoli turned on the style in a classy second-half performance that left Udinese struggling to respond.

After a first half of missed chances for the San Paolo giants, Mertens broke the deadlock with a fine strike on the run from the edge of the area three minutes into the second period.

Brazilian midfielder Allan won plaudits from all his teammates when he raced to a loose ball to beat Orestis Karnezis on the hour.

Spanish forward Callejon completed the win with Napoli’s third on 72 minutes, although Maurizio Sarri’s men could have had more.

Elsewhere, Lazio’s hopes of challenging Napoli for the third Champions League spot were tempered by a 2-2 draw at Genoa, where Luis Alberto hit a last-gasp leveller for Simone Inzaghi’s men.

Lazio remain fourth, but now trail Napoli by nine points and sit just one ahead of Atalanta.

Earlier Saturday, Inter Milan looked to be on their way to victory over AC Milan in the first Chinese-owned city derby following first-half goals from Antonio Candreva and Mauro Icardi.

But the Nerazzurri were pegged back by Alessio Romagnoli’s 83rd minute strike and stunned by Cristian Zapata’s last-gasp leveller at the San Siro.

“We didn’t win because we didn’t wrap up the game,” lamented Inter coach Stefano Pioli.

“We had chances to score the third goal, and didn’t take them. I think with a little bit more concentration we’d be going home with the three points.”

Milan remain sixth, two points behind Atalanta, with Inter two points further back.

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