MILAN: Gonzalo Higuain’s 33rd strike of the season maintained Napoli’s bid to secure Champions League football as evergreen striker Luca Toni bid farewell to the game with a cheeky “Panenka” in Verona’s shock 2-1 win over 10-man Juventus.
Roma, looking for a third consecutive runners-up spot after Juventus clinched a record-
equalling fifth consecutive title, had piled the pressure on Napoli with a 3-0 thumping of Chievo earlier on Sunday (Monday in Manila).
The Giallorossi held a one-point lead on the Azzurri ahead of a tough encounter at Torino, but having already lost out on a first title in 26 years Napoli are not letting second place, and a chance to return to Europe’s premier club competition, slip so easily.
Higuain broke the deadlock on 12 minutes and Jose Callejon doubled Napoli’s lead before half-time. Although Bruno Peres reduced arrears on 66 minutes Napoli survived a late push to clinch the points.
It bumped Maurizio Sarri’s men back up to second place with a two-point lead on Roma, who face a tough trip to AC Milan in their final game of the season next Saturday, when Napoli host already-relegated Frosinone.
Despite a new club record of 79 points, Napoli coach Sarri warned: “We’re having a great season, with a new points record in Serie A, but there are no easy games so we have to remain focused next week to nail down second place.
“That way, we can say we’ve had an extraordinary season.”
Higuain only last month returned from a three-match ban that has curtailed his bid to at least equal Gunnar Nordahl’s all-time record of 35 goals in a 20-team Serie A season, a feat the Swede achieved with AC Milan in 1950.
After seeing Daniele Padelli palm an early strike round the post, Higuain made no mistake on 12 minutes when he collected Marek Hamsik’s pinpoint pass to send a curling drive past the keeper at the far post to become the first player to score 33 goals in Serie A since Antonio Valentin Angelillo in 1958-59.
When Slovakian midfielder Hamsik was allowed to race to the left byline eight minutes later and whip in a cross for Callejon, the thankful Spaniard blasted low past Padelli at the back post.
Woodwork denies Higuain
Higuain should have had his second but saw his low strike from 18 yards hit the bottom of the upright, and the Argentine hit the woodwork a second time when his drive skimmed the crossbar.
Torino reduced arrears just after the hour when Peres pounced on Giuseppe Vives’s cross to lob Pepe Reina, who got a hand to the ball before it hit the net.
But the hosts failed to produce a late leveler and instead finished with 10 men after Vives saw red for a second bookable offence at the death.
Toni, meanwhile, was the toast of Verona after bringing down the curtain on his storied career with a cheeky 43rd-minute “Panenka” chip that beat second-choice Juve keeper Norberto Neto in a 2-1 win.
“I didn’t know whether to shoot it right or left, so I opted for the ‘scavino’ (chip),” said Toni.
With perhaps one eye already on their Italian Cup final against AC Milan on May 21, Juventus conceded a second on 55 minutes when Federico Viviani found the net from the edge of the area.
Juventus, who had not conceded two league goals since a 3-2 win over Carpi in December, finished with 10 men after Alex Sandro saw red for a second yellow card.
The visitors scraped a late goal thanks to Paulo Dybala’s spot-kick, after Filip Helander had shoved Simone Zaza to the ground.
Less than 10 days before trying to secure a second consecutive double, Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri said: “We should have done a lot better, but this defeat will serve us well.”
Earlier Sunday, fans turned out to pack the Stadio Olimpico as Francesco Totti made his 600th Serie A appearance with Roma.
It could have been the 39-year-old’s final game at the Olimpico amid hesitation from the club to offer a 24th and final year of contract.
Only Inter Milan legend Javier Zanetti (615) and AC Milan great Paolo Maldini (647) have made more appearances in Serie A.