MILAN: Poland striker Arkaduisz Milik made his return from a lengthy injury lay-off but watched from the bench as a Dries Mertens-inspired Napoli kept the Serie A title race ticking over with a 2-0 win over Genoa on Friday (Saturday in Manila).
Piotr Zielinski and Emanuele Giaccherini struck in the second half as Maurizio Sarri’s men leapfrogged Roma into second place to sit six points behind leaders Juventus.
Roma, now in third and a point behind Napoli, will move back up to second with a win at struggling Crotone while Juventus can further underline their bid for a record sixth consecutive title with a win at Cagliari in Sunday’s late game.
Napoli’s 18th consecutive win in all competitions kept morale high ahead of their Champions League trip to Real Madrid in midweek.
“We were all focused on Genoa tonight, not Real,” Giaccherini told Sky Sport.
“We knew it would be hard because Genoa play a tight marking game. Personally, I work hard every day to be ready when the coach calls. And when the coach calls, you have to step up to the plate.”
Milik, bought from Ajax to replace Gonzalo Higuain when he left Napoli for Juventus last summer, has only recently returned from a cruciate knee ligament injury suffered while on international duty last October.
But with Belgian midfielder Mertens in fine form, and the trip to Real Madrid in midweek in mind, Sarri’s decision to keep the Pole on the bench proved correct.
Having hit three hat-tricks in less than 12 weeks to take his league tally to 16 goals in 24 games—only one fewer than league leader Edin Dzeko of Roma—Mertens turned provider for the night.
He started up front alongside Lorenzo Insigne and Giaccherini, who was handed his first Napoli start amid the enforced absence of Jose Callejon due to suspension and capitalised to hit his maiden league goal for Napoli.
But it took until the second half, after Faouzi Ghoulam, Kalidou Koulibaly and Marek Hamsik had come close, for Napoli to break down a resolute Genoa side.
A mazy run from Mertens helped break the deadlock, the attempted clearance from his attempt falling for Zielinski to smash past Eugenio Lamanna and into the bottom corner minutes after the restart.
Mertens came close to adding a second when he nutmegged Lucas Orban to test Lamanna, Amadou Diawara firing the follow-up wide.
But the Belgian’s masterpiece on the night was his assist for Giaccherini.
He hooked a long ball and flicked it around Nicolas Burdisso before rolling across for Giaccherini to tap into an empty net.