Mauro Icardi scored a brace in a 3-0 Serie A win over Verona as Inter Milan closed in on third-placed Roma who were held 1-1 by Bologna on Saturday ahead of their Champions League clash against Barcelona.
Substitute Edin Dzeko rescued a point for the side from the capital who were also hit by a Radja Nainggolan injury that could compromise their quarter-final in Spain midweek.
Eusebio Di Francesco’s Roma have 60 points from 30 games, but their grip on third is now threatened by Inter who edged two points behind.
Lazio are a further point back just outside the Champions League places for next season in fifth after surviving a scare to see off rock bottom Benevento 6-2.
Dzeko headed in after 76 minutes at the Stadio Dall’Ara after Erick Pulgar had given Bologna the lead on 18 minutes.
And the Bosnian forward admitted their trip to the Camp Nou for the first leg of their quarter-final clash was already on Roma’s minds.
“We are going into a very important match, we all had our thoughts on Barcelona a little bit, but even then we had chances and could have scored more,” said Dzeko.
“It’s difficult to explain what went wrong.”
Roma lacked speed against a Bologna side which included Di Francesco’s winger son Federico, with third-choice goalkeeper Antonio Santurro proving the unlikely hero for the home side.
Santurro was appearing in first Serie A game with Antonio Mirante suspended and understudy Angelo Da Costa injured.
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) March 31, 2018
And the 26-year-old did well on his debut keeping out an early Patrik Schick strike, followed by a Daniele De Rossi header from the resulting corner.
Nainggolan limped off after just 16 minutes with a muscular problem, and looks in doubt to face Barcelona.
Two minutes later Bologna were ahead, Pulgar picking up a poor clearance on the edge of the box to fire past Alisson.
Santurro denied Stephan El Shaarawy, with Kevin Strootman missing the chance to equalise when alone in front of goal.
But Dzeko replaced El Shaarawy with half an hour to go and got his head to Argentine winger Diego Perotti’s cross to fire past Santurro.
“We know that if we play like that against Barcelona, it won’t be enough,” said Di Francesco. “But we also know that Barca will attack. It will be a totally different match.”
Icardi, meanwhile, earned a standing ovation from the 60,000 crowd at the San Siro after bringing his tally of Serie A goals to 105.
The Argentine – who scored four in a 5-0 win over Sampdoria last time out – continued where he left off bagging the first after 38 seconds off an Ivan Perisic throw-in.
Perisic added a second on 13 minutes, with Icardi sliding in the third after the restart for a confidence boost ahead of next Wednesday’s Milan derby against AC Milan.
“I’m happy for my fastest goal in my career,” said Icardi. “It was the perfect day, not for goals, but because the team won. We go into the derby with the right frame of mind.
“We’re aware that we have to do well because there is little time to reach the goal of going to the Champions League.”
Serie A top scorer Ciro Immobile also scored a double as Lazio fought back after going 2-1 behind to 10-man Benevento, nabbing five goals in the last half hour.
Juventus face a stiff test to remain at the top as they host AC Milan later on Saturday with Napoli, second and two points behind the leaders, travelling to Sassuolo.
Juventus earned a vital 3-1 victory over old foes AC Milan at Allianz Stadium on Saturday to stride ahead in the Serie A title race as Max Allegri’s side chase an unprecedented seventh Scudetto in a row.
Paulo Dybala rocketed in a scintillating opener before former Juve favourite Leonardo Bonucci stunned the home crowd with a fine header to gain parity for the Rossoneri.
It was a finely-balanced contest after that with the visitors coming closest to netting a second when Hakan Calhanoglu rattled Gianluigi Buffon’s crossbar.
Yet substitute Juan Cuadrado nodded in 11 minutes from time to see Juve retake the lead, while Sami Khedira’s low belter sealed an important three points on the road to what the Old Lady will be seventh heaven.
Here, we pick out three takeaways from Turin.
LUCKY NUMBER SEVEN LOOKS NAILED ON
Before Saturday, discussions regarding Italian football centered on the belief the Serie A title is a genuine battle and that Juventus’ quest for a seventh-straight Scudetto will be tested significantly.
Yet, Serie A has quickly gone from being the tightest title race in Europe this season, to the only title race in Europe this season, to now being the fifth title race in Europe this season that is as good as over.
How can that be the case, you may cry. Paris-Saint Germain and Bayern Munich enjoy gargantuan 17-point advantages in Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga respectively. Manchester City hold a 16-point lead over rivals and neighbours Manchester United in the Premier League (United have a game in hand), while Barcelona are 12 points in front of Atletico Madrid (who also have a game in hand) in La Liga.
The Bianconeri’s grip atop Serie A seems measly by comparison, at just four points. But while Allegri’s men were brushing aside rejuvenated AC Milan 3-1 to extend their four-month unbeaten run to 17 matches, pretenders Napoli drew 1-1 at 16th-placed Sassuolo.
They have won just once in four Serie A games, with March 3’s chastening 4-2 home defeat to third-placed Roma ending a 10-match unbeaten run.
With the vice-like grip the Old Lady have exerted on Italian football, it’s hard to conjure belief that the end of this season will be anything other than the same old story as the narrative from the previous six chapters.
A perfect way to start the defining stretch of the season. 💪
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) March 31, 2018
CUADRADO RETURN A MASSIVE BOOST AS JUVE LOOK TO REGAIN TITLE
Juventus’ march towards the title picked up pace on Saturday. And when you have world-class players like Juan Cuadrado nearing a return to full fitness and available to call upon from the bench to change games, it reiterates the belief of there being a maddening inevitability to it.
The crafty Colombian has been missing since December 23’s victory over Roma, with a long-standing groin injury operated on in January.
There was speculation he wouldn’t return before the end of the season. Yet there he was, ghosting in at the back post behind the statuesque Hakan Calhanoglu to bullet a brilliant header past Gianluigi Donnarumma 18 minutes after emerging from the dugout to effectively decide the game in the Bianconeri’s favour.
Cuadrado’s condition was checked by the Colombia medical staff while the player was in Paris during the international break, although his recovery time was said to be unclear.
He was not expected to be eligible to play for the next two games, yet here he was, a matchwinner.
It’s what he does. Juve have players of his pedigree in abundance.
Sure, Napoli have Marek Hamsik, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne. But Juve have Gonzalo Higuain, Dybala, Douglas Costa and now the returning Cuadrado.
When you factor in Dybala’s timely return to form – strengthened by a busy performance and stunning opener against Milan – Juve have a deeply rich tapestry of artists who can weave them a dream seventh successive domestic title.
— Juvefc.com (@juvefcdotcom) March 31, 2018
LEO CAN BE A LION FOR MILAN
Leonardo Bonucci’s defection from Juventus to AC Milan stunned Italy and the footballing world last summer after seven glorious years in Turin.
He earned a hefty payrise, although the celebrated defender insisted it was his passion for a new challenge that drove him to a decision rather than money.
Whatever his motivation, it seemed a fool’s errand as a Milan squad bristling with talent endured a nightmare start to the campaign, losing six and drawing three of their opening 14 Serie A games. The Azzurri veteran’s nadir seemed to come following a red card for elbowing Aleandro Rosi in a 0-0 draw with Genoa in October.
Yet, the Rossoneri have lost just three of the following 14 as they’ve climbed to sixth, into a Europa League spot and with hopes of challenging for a return to the Champions League after five long years.
It’s been a quiet return to form, although there was nothing quiet about Bonucci’s celebration against his former employers as he surged in to plant a brilliant header past former teammate Gianluigi Buffon on Saturday to draw Milan level.
It silenced the home crowd, although his celebration was angrily animated.
The man himself revealed a spat with Allegri following his omission from a Champions League clash with Porto last season was one of the reasons he left.
This clash usually defined the Serie A title race from the end of the 1980s until the turn of this decade. Now, only this weekend’s hosts at Allianz Stadium are involved in the scrap for the domestic game’s grandest trophy.
But with a Rossoneri revitalised under Gennaro Gattuso back in the picture for Champions League qualification, the stakes remain high on both sides.
Here are the talking points:
NICE TO SEE YOU, LEO
An expert sense of timing applies for Leonardo Bonucci, both in and out of the tackle.
A wild swing of the celebrated centre-back’s elbow against Genoa last October saw him miss out on an instant return to Juve, the club he’d contentiously left in the summer following 319 appearances and 12 major trophies.
This was almost an act of self-preservation. Bonucci was then, the poster boy for Milan’s misspent summer windfall, performing way below the high standards set during seven superb years in Turin.
Milan were swatted aside on that day in a deflated San Siro. Much has changed since.
Central to this has been the improved form of Bonucci. He now leads a defence that has kept clean sheets in its last three away matches in Serie A.
A positive reception from the Allianz crowd is anything-but certain. The same can’t be said about the shackles he will throw on Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala.
MASTER AND APPRENTICE
These are uncertain times for Italian football as the reality they will miss out on World Cup 2018 continues to sink in.
But one area in which they can remain bullish is the quality of their coaches.
November’s decision by Milan, ridiculed at the time, to dispense with Vincenzo Montella and promote club legend Gennaro Gattuso from the Primavera has proven a masterstroke.
The imminent signing of a contract extension is just reward for his remarkable turnaround. This includes a 10-game unbeaten run in Serie A and growing possibility Milan’s tumultuous campaign could yet end with a return to the Champions League for the first time since 2013/14.
In the opposite corner, Massimiliano Allegri is coveted across the continent. He is the master to Gattuso’s apprentice.
He was in charge of Milan the last time they won this fixture in March 2011. The scorer that day? None other than Gattuso.
OLD LADY’S JUGGLING ACT
The business end of the season is upon Juve.
They are locked in Europe’s only title race among the big-five leagues and have the small matter to come of Tuesday’s visit of Real Madrid in the Champions League’s quarter-finals.
After usurping Napoli at the top before the international break for the first time since September, they are determined to make it seven titles in a row.
Equally, this historic period for the Old Lady has a glaring omission – two appearances in the continental final have delivered two painful losses.
Instant revenge against 2016/17 conquerors Madrid is at hand. To do this, careful squad management is required.
Fortunately for Allegri, he can now count on the likes of Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic and Colombia winger Juan Cuadrado.
Smart rotation of his resources is key for the challenges ahead.