MILAN: Edin Dzeko’s second-half strike kept Serie A title challengers Roma in the hunt with a 1-0 win at home to Cagliari that cut the gap on leaders Juventus to one point on Sunday (Monday in Manila).
Fresh life was breathed into the race for the scudetto last week, especially for Roma and Napoli, when Juventus suffered a 2-1 defeat at Fiorentina.
But the Turin giants, aiming for a record sixth consecutive title, fired a warning to their chasers with a classy, first-half performance in a 2-0 home win over Lazio that saw Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain strike shortly after the quarter hour.
Defender Andrea Barzagli started on the bench, midfielder Claudio Marchisio was sidelined and although wingback Dani Alves returned from injury, the former Barcelona star was only fit enough for a place on the bench.
Lazio had lost their last eight meetings with Juve, home and away in all competitions, and despite their good intentions the visitors were soon playing catch-up.
On Juve’s first real chance, Mario Mandzukic nodded the ball into the path of Dybala for the Argentinian to hit a volley with the outside of his boot past Federico Marchetti and into the far bottom corner.
Lazio were stunned again barely 10 minutes later, although the visitors’ defence allowed Higuain to run in unchecked to meet Juan Cuadrado’s delivery from the right flank on 17 minutes.
It was Higuain’s 14th goal in 19 appearances and left the Argentine only one behind league leader Mauro Icardi of Inter Milan, who, along with Atalanta, capitalised on AC Milan’s 2-1 San Siro to Napoli on Saturday to push the Rossoneri down to seventh at 11 points adrift.
Back in Champions League action at Porto next month, coach Massimiliano Allegri said: “I asked the lads for a big team performance because that’s what we need in Europe, and they pulled through.”
A 65th minute winner from Portugal midfielder Joao Mario rescued Inter’s blushes in a 1-0 win at Palermo that moved Stefano Pioli’s Champions League chasers up to fifth place at just nine points off the pace.
Palermo’s third defeat on the trot dropped the crisis-hit Sicilians to second from bottom, 11 points from safety.
“That was a crucial win for us, we’d worked really hard in training this week for this,” said Mario, who believes the 2010 Champions League winners can realistically target a top three finish.
“We believe in our chances, there are still a lot of games to play.”
Atalanta are still punching above their weight, although it took Alejandro Gomez’s 55th-minute spot kick to secure the points from a 1-0 win over Sampdoria that saw the Bergamo side move up to sixth, just a point behind Inter.
Roma welcomed Cagliari with the chance equal a club record of 13 consecutive home victories, last achieved in 1930.
A wasteful first half at the Stadio Olimpico saw Diego Perotti, Dzeko (twice) and Bruno Peres all spurn solid chances.
But the increasingly frustrated home support were back on song on 55 minutes, Dzeko muscling his way past Nicola Murru to meet Antonio Rudiger’s pacey delivery to volley in off the underside of the crossbar from eight yards.
It took the Bosnian’s league goals tally to 14, just one behind Icardi and level with Higuain and Torino striker Andrea Belotti.
Roma coach Luciano Spalletti piled the pressure on Dzeko to take more of his chances a fortnight ago, calling the Bosnian “too soft” in front of goal.
Asked if he was still too soft, Dzeko said: “Yes, you all saw that today didn’t you!”
He added: “Joking aside, it wasn’t easy (against Cagliari). We had a few chances, I missed one in the opening half and then I made up for it in the second. I was more clinical. “It was an important win for us, but we have to keep it going.”