Anyone who thought they would give up their crown without a fight really knew nothing about Antonio Conte and his team. In the biggest Scudetto showdown of the season so far, the Bianconeri showed their determination to make it three-in-a-row. Ahead of the international break, it sounded like an alarm bell to any of their title rivals.
La Vecchia Signora started their game with Napoli like a caged beast which had been starved of food for a fortnight. They sunk their teeth into Rafa Benitez’s side with great gusto in the opening stages and got their reward after just a couple of minutes. Fernando Llorente was narrowly offside when he prodded the ball home, but the Turin side needed no second invitation to take control.
Not that the Partenopei went down without a fight, they had their chances to get back into the match but Gigi Buffon – the man some suggested was past his best – excelled himself in denying the visitors. Later in the game a typically pinpoint Andrea Pirlo free-kick and sweet swivelling finish from Paul Pogba put the outcome beyond doubt. It puts Conte’s men in the perfect position to carry out an overtaking manoeuvre at the top of the table once their players come back from national team duties.
“We have sent an important signal to those ahead of us,” said Pirlo in post-match interviews. “We are all up there – Roma are having a great championship but we have to worry about ourselves. After the Giallorossi drew we had to close the gap and we did it in the best way possible.”
“Napoli are a very strong team which can still improve a lot,” added Conte. “I am sure they are a team which will fight right to the end for the Scudetto. It will be a fight with them and Roma and then there are Inter and Fiorentina and maybe other teams.”
“To start a game against such a strong side as Juventus and go behind after two minutes changes everything,” said Benitez. “Up to the 74th minute the team showed quality and concentration. Then we saw two goals which showed the quality of their players.”
Those who had predicted a slowing of Roma’s pace got surprising proof of their wisdom against Sassuolo. The Giallorossi looked to be set for a Stadio Olimpico stroll when Alessandro Longhi thumped one into his own goal in the first half. But a personal duel between Adem Ljajic and Gianluca Pegolo saw the visiting goalkeeper thwart the Serbian on at least three occasions. When Rudi Garcia’s men failed to extend their lead it was up to special agent Domenico Berardi – owned by Juve – to level the match deep in injury time.
“When we did not get the second goal this could always happen,” admitted the Roma boss. “You cannot relax when you are just one goal ahead. But we are still in first place and we played a good game – more so in the second half than the first. That is the important thing for me – we are playing well and as long as we are doing that we will win games.”
For other teams, however, winning matches has become the hardest thing of all. For few sides is this more true than Max Allegri’s Milan. With Mario Balotelli banned again, the closest they came to downing Chievo was a Robinho shot which bounced off the post. Their tactician took the goalless draw – and the increased questions over his future – in philosophical style.
“I am the Milan Coach – if the club thinks they need another one they will let me know,” he said. “We created a lot and conceded not much. I couldn’t have asked any more of my players. Sometimes scoring a goal and winning a game can change people’s opinions of a team.”
It is the same story for Delio Rossi at Sampdoria who was surrounded by rumours that he would be shown the door after away defeat to Fiorentina. A quick-fire Giuseppe Rossi double looked to have given the Viola an easy victory but they trembled a little after Manolo Gabbiadini narrowed the gap. Vincenzo Montella’s men just held out to keep themselves in the European debate.
Verona tumbled out of that equation a little with their defeat at the hands of back-in-form Genoa, but Inter kept up a good pace thanks to a Saturday night win over Livorno. Their task was made easier by an unfortunate blunder from visiting goalkeeper Francesco Bardi who pretty much threw the ball into his own net to open the scoring. The fact that he is on-loan from the Nerazzurri, like much of the Tuscan team, only made it look worse. Yuto Nagatomo completed the scoring in a match which was also notable for the return of Javier Zanetti to action after his long spell out through injury.
Elsewhere, Lazio shared the spoils with Parma at the Ennio Tardini while two Daniele Conti thunderbolt free-kicks were enough for Cagliari to sink Torino. That victory allowed the Sardinians to pull clear of Bologna who were downed by a late Marko Livaja strike in a 2-1 defeat at Atalanta. Finally, there was some consolation for Maxi Lopez who was able to get his mind off widely-reported relationship problems by giving Catania a rare win this season at home to Udinese. However, the Sicilians might still be separating from Serie A come the end of this campaign.