Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain punished his former club with an early goal in a 1-0 win at Serie A leader Napoli on Friday that tightened the title race.
Playing with a broken left hand that was operated on four days earlier, Higuain took a pass from Paulo Dybala and finished off a swift counterattack with an accurate shot inside the near post past charging goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
”Pipita has been in great form for the last two months and it would have been a shame to lose him for a match like this,” said Juventus captain Gianluigi Buffon, who also had a strong match. ”The fact that he gave his commitment and contribution through the pain means a lot to us.”
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Six-time defending champion Juventus moved ahead of Inter Milan into second place and within one point of Napoli, which was handed its first loss of the season.
Conceding a goal to Higuain was particularly painful for Napoli. Two seasons ago, the Argentina international scored 36 goals for Napoli to break a 66-year-old Serie A record. Then he transferred to Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million) and he has now scored five goals in five matches against Napoli.
Earlier, fourth-place Roma beat 10-man Spal 3-1.
Inter can take the lead with a win over Chievo Verona on Sunday.
Juventus has won Serie A a record 33 times, while Napoli is aiming to win its first Italian league title since Diego Maradona led the southern club to its only two championships in 1987 and 1990.
Napoli’s thin bench could become a deciding factor.
”There’s no use crying about it,” Napoli coach Maurizio said, acknowledging that he had no plan B. ”We need to do well with these (players).”
Napoli has lost only three of its last 45 Serie A games but two of those have come against Juventus.
”We had a great approach to the match in terms of our mentality, willingness to suffer and solidness,” Buffon said. ”It’s not easy to play every week play with this mentality. It requires an enormous amount of energy. But when the time comes to pull out something extra we’re always able to.”
Higuain was animated right from the pre-match warmups when he incited Napoli fans who were heckling him, waving his arms in encouragement.
After he scored, Higuain put his hand next to his ear as if asking the Napoli fans, ”What do you have to say now?” Then he extended his hand from his forehead while looking toward the stands where Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis sits.
While Napoli dominated the possession, Juventus sat back and protected its lead, preventing the Partenopei from unleashing their normally devastating counterattacks.
Buffon deflected numerous chances from Lorenzo Insigne, who exited with an apparent muscular injury in the second half.
Napoli striker Dries Mertens had hardly any chances.
Blaise Matuidi should have made it 2-0 for Juventus but Reina somehow deflected his close-range effort in the 68th.
”To be able to get three points against this Napoli and not concede a goal is really something,” said Buffon, who added that he was ”really pleased” to have recorded his first clean sheet at Napoli since he was with Parma more than two decades ago.
Juventus, Napoli and Roma will each attempt to secure a place in the Champions League knockout stages next week. Juventus visits Olympiakos, Napoli plays at Feyenoord and Roma hosts Azerbaijani side Qarabag.
`EL SHA’ SHINES
Stephan El Shaarawy produced another standout performance, providing two expert assists to help Roma comfortably beat Spal.
First, El Shaarawy provided a well-timed ball over the top to help Edin Dzeko beat the offside trap for Roma’s opener. Then he sent a backheel pass toward Kevin Strootman for the Giallorossi’s second.
A month ago, El Shaarawy scored a brace against English Premier League champion Chelsea in the Champions League.
Lorenzo Pellegrini made it 3-0 after the break with a header following a cross from Aleksandar Kolarov.
Federico Viviani then pulled one back for Spal.
Spal was reduced to 10 men early on when Felipe committed a last-man foul on Dzeko just outside the area. The referee initially showed Felipe yellow but changed to red after consulting with the video assistant.
The Giallorossi did not miss captain Daniele De Rossi, who was handed a two-match suspension for slapping an opponent in the face.
Fans dedicated a banner to De Rossi that read, ”Sangue romano…Ddr nostro capitano!” – ”Roman blood…Ddr our captain!”
Promoted Spal, which is located in Ferrara, remained in the relegation zone.
More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA