Milan (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo hit back at his critics with a quick-fire hat-trick as Juventus brushed aside Cagliari 3-1 on Sunday, five days after their Champions League elimination, while Inter Milan moved nine points clear at the Serie A summit.
Portuguese star Ronaldo bore the brunt of the criticism for Juve’s latest European flop after failing to score in either leg of the last-16 defeat by Porto, while also being partly at fault for what proved to be the goal which knocked them out.
But the 36-year-old scored a header in the 10th minute at the Sardegna Arena, added a second from the penalty spot 15 minutes later, and completed a ‘perfect’ treble on 31 minutes with a fine left-footed strike.
Defending champions Juventus are 10 points behind leaders Inter Milan, who beat Torino 2-1 earlier Sunday, but with a game in hand.
Andrea Pirlo’s side pulled just one point behind second-placed AC Milan, whose title hopes took a big hit following a 1-0 home defeat to Napoli.
“Our approach was spot on and it was important to get off on the right foot after being knocked out the other night,” said Pirlo.
“Ronaldo was angry like the rest of the team. He reacted like a true champion.”
He could also have been sent off after a quarter of an hour, receiving only a yellow card for dangerous play as his boot struck Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Cragno in the face while attempting to meet a Federico Chiesa cross.
Ronaldo is the leading scorer in Serie A with 23 goals this season, ahead of Inter’s Romelu Lukaku, who has 19.
His career tally is now 770 goals, overtaking Brazil legend Pele’s 767 scored in official matches which he matched earlier this month.
Before kick-off, Juventus chief football officer Fabio Paratici dismissed talk about Ronaldo’s future with the club.
“It makes me laugh. I would never have imagined discussing the value of Cristiano Ronaldo,” said Paratici.
“It’s a privilege to have him with us, he’s part of our future.”
– Inter pull clear of Milan –
Lautaro Martinez scored a brilliant 85th-minute winner in a tight game against 18th-placed Torino to keep Inter on track for a first league title since 2010.
Antonio Conte’s Inter once again needed their strike duo of Lukaku and Martinez to find a way to win in Turin.
Christian Eriksen came off the bench on 56 minutes and had an immediate impact, playing a part in the move which resulted in Torino defender Armando Izzo fouling Martinez in the penalty area.
Lukaku fired home the resulting spot-kick in the 62nd minute.
Inter looked to be wobbling when Antonio Sanabria pulled Torino level eight minutes later, finishing off goalmouth scramble.
But Martinez snatched the victory by getting his head to an Alexis Sanchez cross for his 14th league goal this term.
Inter stretched their winning run to eight matches to move further ahead of AC Milan.
“Victories like these are crucial,” said Inter assistant coach Cristian Stellini, with Conte serving a touchline ban.
AC Milan’s hopes of a first title since 2011 diminished as they failed to win for their third consecutive game at the San Siro, days before they host Manchester United in their last 16 Europa League decider.
Matteo Politano scored the only goal just after the break with Milan finishing the game a man down after Ante Rebic was sent off in injury time for arguing with officials.
Napoli’s Champions League hopes have been revived as they move above Roma into fifth before the two sides play next weekend, after the capital side fell 2-0 at 19th-ranked Parma.
Valentin Mihaila opened the scoring on nine minutes with Hernani added a second from the spot to snap Parma’s 17-match winless run.
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