MILAN: Gonzalo Higuain claimed his 25th Serie A goal of the season as Napoli maintained their title push with a thrilling 1-1 draw at Fiorentina on Monday (Tuesday in Manila).
Napoli were under the cosh after champions Juventus stretched their lead at the top of the table to four points with a 2-0 win over hapless Inter Milan on Sunday.
But despite pushing La Viola hard in a thrilling encounter at the Artemio Franchi, a share of the spoils against a Fiorentina side that looks worthy of a top three finish to qualify for next season’s Champions League left Napoli with no complaints.
Napoli remained in second place, three points behind Juventus, with Roma and Fiorentina both five points further adrift in third and fourth places respectively.
Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said it had been a “great game” but admitted to Mediaset Premium: “They had the chance to win the game in the final minutes of the first half, as we did in the final minutes of the second.
“It was a fair result, neither side deserved to lose. I’m really happy with my lads, and tip my hat to Fiorentina.”
Fiorentina coach Paolo Sousa did not agree, but was buoyed by another performance that underlined Fiorentina’s Champions League credentials.
“Unfortunately we just lacked a little bit of luck to take what was a deserved win,” said the Portuguese coach.
“But we’re right on track for the goals we have set ourselves. With a little bit of ambition and belief, we want to compete with the big sides.
“I’m proud of the lads, because they always want to improve. Tonight we deserved something more from this match.”
After just six minutes Sousa’s men got in front when Marcos Alonso rose above the Napoli defence at a corner to send a glancing header past Pepe Reina.
But Alonso went from hero to zero in a matter of seconds.
From the subsequent kick-off that had all the hallmarks of a set-piece, Kalidou Koulibaly promptly fired a high punt into the Fiorentina area that forced ‘keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu out of his net.
When Alonso’s fluffed clearance fell to Higuain, he little trouble guiding the ball into the back of the net from 30 yards.
Having failed to score for three weeks, including two league games and two Europa League games, and come under criticism from club president Aurelio De Laurentiis for being “overweight”, the Argentinian’s exuberant celebrations were perhaps understandable.
Yet Fiorentina twice came close to silencing Napoli in spectacular fashion before the interval, Nikola Kalinic outpacing Senegal defender Koulibaly to rocket a shot off the crossbar and then Cristian Tello hitting post and crossbar with a superb curling effort.
Fiorentina resumed where they had left off, the Viola’s pacy passing and movement leaving Napoli ball-watching during the early exchanges of the second half.
But Napoli finally settled and gave the hosts a scare when Jose Callejon skipped past Davide Astori to unleash an angled shot that Tatarusanu did well to block.
The rebound fell to Higuain, but from 12 yards the Argentine saw the ‘keeper produce heroics to keep the ball out.
“I was really happy with that save,” said Tatarusanu. “It was a decisive point in the game. We were unlucky not to win, but the draw is better for us than it is for Napoli.”
It was end to end stuff and soon after Matias Fernandez tested Reina with a curling effort from the left corner of the area that forced the ‘keeper down low as the ball whizzed past his post.
Higuain had the ball in the net five minutes from the end but the Argentine was immediately ruled offside.
Fiorentina threatened at the other end, where only Koulibaly’s diving header stopped Kalinic from reaching Alonso’s cross towards the back post as the hosts pushed for a late winner.
Tatarusanu then pulled off a great, late save to thwart Lorenzo Insigne after the lively winger had been set up deep on the left.