Milan: Manolo Gabbiadini opened the scoring as Napoli made light of Gonzalo Higuain’s four-game ban to keep their Serie A title hopes alive with a 3-0 win at home to 10-man Verona yesterday.
Champions Juventus had stretched their lead to nine points with a precious 2-1 victory at AC Milan on Saturday that took the Turin giants a step closer to a record-equalling fifth consecutive ‘Scudetto’.
Napoli’s hopes of a first title in 26 years faded last week when Higuain was slapped with his ban, following a meltdown that saw the Argentina striker push the referee on the way to a crushing 3-1 defeat at Udinese.
But Maurizio Sarri’s men stayed in the title hunt for one more week at least, thanks to a convincing win that saw Gabbiadini, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon hit the net against Serie A’s basement side to bring the gap back to six points with six games remaining.
Barely a half hour after Higuain’s name had been cheered by 40,000 home fans, Gabbiadini stepped in as a direct replacement with aplomb, heading the rebound from Callejon’s strike past Pierluigi Gollini on 33 minutes.
Verona’s chances of taking anything away from the San Paolo were hit before the interval when Samuel Souprayen saw red for a clumsy challenge on Callejon in the area.
Insigne stepped up to beat Gollini from the resulting penalty to double Napoli’s lead on the stroke of half-time, with Callejon adding the third in the second half with a tap-in after Omar El Kaddouri had sprung the offside trap.
As Napoli and their players continued a media boycott in protest at perceived biased reporting two weeks ago, the club were defiant in a bullish post-match statement.
“We’re right there, in the Champions League hot seat, and on our way to new club records thanks to a phalanx of quality players,” said the statement. “We’re on 70 points and go for it again in Milan next week. Inter v Napoli: the first of six finals.”
Yet, Napoli’s potentially tricky trip to Inter next week, coupled with the fact four of Juve’s last six games are at home, means the champions look to have one hand on the Serie A title.
On Saturday, the champions could afford to rest several regulars on their way to a comeback win over a battling Milan side, whose hopes of Europa League qualification are now hanging by a thread.
Paul Pogba struck a second-half winner at the San Siro after Mario Mandzukic had levelled Alex’s 18th-minute opener for the hosts just before the half hour.
Three league games inside a week beginning from next weekend will “decide everything”, said Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio.
Juventus face Palermo, Lazio and Fiorentina (away), while Napoli are away to Inter, host Bologna then travel to Roma.
“From next weekend, we’re facing three games inside a week that will decide everything, so it was fundamental for us to maintain our advantage,” said Marchisio.
“We’ve picked ourselves up after our poor start this season. It’s been extraordinary.”
The result left Milan in sixth place, seven points behind Fiorentina in fifth – the league’s last Europa League qualifying spot – after La Viola’s shock 2-0 defeat at Empoli.
Empoli had not beaten Fiorentina home or away since 1997, but after Manuel Pucciarelli’s 41st-minute strike the hosts thwarted a second-half fightback by the visitors and wrapped up the points when Piotr Zielinkski struck two minutes from time.
Fiorentina’s sixth game without a win has dented their Europa League hopes.
Post-match, coach Paulo Sousa again played down reports that he has been in discussions with Zenit Saint Petersburg officials amid reports yesyterday claiming representatives from the Russian club were in attendance.
He said: “It’s normal for scouts or sporting directors (from other clubs) to travel to other games.”