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Mertens brace keeps Napoli ahead of Juventus

Milan (AFP) – Dries Mertens continued his return to goal scoring form with a brace as Napoli bounced back from a goal down to reclaim top spot in Serie A on Sunday with a 3-1 home win over Bologna.

Napoli restored their one-point advantage over champions Juventus who went top after Sami Khedira and Gonzalo Higuain scored in a 2-0 win at nine-man Chievo on Saturday.

In Naples, it proved to be a battle with Rodrigo Palacio nodding Bologna ahead after 25 seconds before an Ibrahima Mbaye own goal four minutes later pulled the hosts back at their Stadio San Paolo.

Mertens edged Napoli ahead on 37 minutes with a penalty awarded for a foul on Jose Callejon. The Belgian then claimed his 13th goal of the season with a spectacular curling effort on 59 minutes.

“The team showed character. It wasn’t easy to pick ourselves off the ground today,” said Mertens who netted his third goal in a week.

Maurizio Sarri’s side have 57 points from 22 games, one more than Juventus. Inter Milan missed a chance to move third with a frustrating 1-1 draw at promoted SPAL.

“We cannot compare ourselves to Juventus,” said Sarri. “They are clearly superior in every way. Juve win 90 per cent of their matches.

“Our aim is to play beautifully. We like playing good football, enjoying ourselves and entertaining.”

Inter are two points behind Lazio who can move further ahead when they play AC Milan at San Siro later on Sunday. Roma are just three points behind Inter in fifth before playing at Sampdoria.

Alberto Paloschi headed in a last-gasp equaliser to grab a precious point for SPAL after Inter had taken the lead on 48 minutes when defender Francesco Vicari turned the ball into his own net.

“When you concede a goal like that in stoppage time, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth,” said Inter coach Luciano Spalletti after his side who had been unbeaten until December 16, notched up a seventh consecutive game without a win.

“I wouldn’t say I’m worried, even when we were winning I didn’t see big improvements,” said Sarri. “Now the results are worse, we’re losing easy balls and at other times we’re not fighting.”

Despite trailing for most of the second half, SPAL proved dogged and their pressing paid off when former Milan forward Paloschi turned in a Mirco Antenucci cross on the stroke of full-time.

Spalletti introduced on-loan Barcelona midfielder Rafinha for the final minutes of the game but the Brazilian failed to lift his team against a SPAL side still in the relegation zone.

– Confusion in Crotone –

Elsewhere struggling Verona shocked Fiorentina 4-1 in Tuscany to end a run of four consecutive defeats, as Udinese moved up to eighth with a 1-0 win at Genoa despite Samir’s sending off with a second half goal from Valon Behrami sealing the three points.

Crotone and Cagliari drew 1-1 in a relegation battle overshadowed by a video assistant referee (VAR) controversy.

Crotone were awarded a soft penalty and Fabio Pisacane received a straight red card for a high tackle, with a late Federico Ceccherini goal ruled offside using VAR, although replays showed no offside position.

“Perhaps the VAR monitor was bent… Perhaps the referee was confused as to who was defending and who was attacking. I have to laugh, because if anyone was offside it was the team with the white jerseys, except they were the ones defending!” said Crotone coach Walter Zenga.

Torino thrashed bottom team Benevento 3-0, with Vid Belec sent off for kicking out at Senegalese forward M’Baye Niang.

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