The Bianconeri maintain their six-point advantage at the summit of Serie A after this evening’s 1-1 draw with fellow Scudetto challengers Napoli
The Bianconeri maintained their six-point lead at the top of Serie A after a determined display sealed a share of the spoils in this evening’s 1-1 draw against Napoli at the San Paolo.
The much heralded Friday showdown was always destined to be an intriguing affair and the encounter certainly lived up to its billing as both Scudetto contenders set about each other with a steely determination throughout an intense 90 minutes.
Giorgio Chiellini marked his return to the starting line-up with a superb headed goal to put the visitors in front after ten minutes, while Gokhan Inler’s deflected long-range drive shortly before the break ensured both sides would end the night with a point apiece.
Juventus survived an early scare as the hosts threatened to break the deadlock in a frantic opening to the encounter.
Pandev, one of three changes made by Mazzarri from Monday’s goalless draw with Udinese, wriggled into space down the right flank and pulled the ball back into the path of Hamsik, only for the Slovakian playmaker to lash a hurried attempt over the crossbar.
The Bianconeri soon clicked into gear and began to stamp their authority on the game with some neat exchanges in midfield. Giovinco was the first to try his luck, with De Sanctis proving equal to his crisply struck shot from just inside the area on eight minutes.
But it proved to be a sign of things for come as the visitors took a deserved lead just two minutes later. Pirlo’s teasing delivery picked out the imposing figure of Chiellini lurking at the back post, and the defender celebrated his first start since December by planting a powerful header past De Sanctis.
The early goal opened the game up as a contest and forced Napoli to show greater ambition in their quest to restore parity.
Yet Juventus will feel they should have doubled their advantage when a speculative punt forward caught Napoli outnumbered in defence. Giovinco unselfishly slipped the ball into the path of Vucinic, but the Montenegrin saw his close-range effort thwarted by the outstretched frame of De Sanctis.
The strike pairing again combined on 32 minutes after Vidal had capitalised on hesitation in the middle of the park to win possession back in Juve’s favour. Giovinco’s slide-rule pass was inch perfect for Vucinic, but his first touch was heavy and allowed De Sanctis to usher the ball behind for a goal-kick.
Napoli piled bodies forward as the first half wore on and had Bianconeri hearts fluttering when the ball fell to Hamsik on the edge of the area. However, the league’s most stubborn rearguard held firm and took the sting out of the shot before it made its way through for Buffon to gather comfortably at his near post.
But just when the Bianconeri appeared to have weathered the storm, the hosts pulled themselves back on level terms with two minutes of the first half remaining. Zuniga cut the ball back inside for Inler, who saw his 25-yard strike take a wicked deflection off Bonucci before arrowing past the despairing dive of Buffon.
Tempers threatened to boil over as a feisty opening 45 minutes at the San Paolo drew to a close, prompting Orsato to issue Cavani with a yellow card after Serie A’s top marksman appeared to strike Chiellini with his elbow.
The second half began with both teams feeling each other out as neither could muster a clear-cut opportunity in the early stages. And ill-timed challenges from Behrami and Cannavaro, both of whom were subsequently shown the yellow card, ensured the temperature continued to rise in the heat of the battle.
Urged forward by a passionate capacity crowd at the San Paolo, Napoli soon began to seize the initiative, calling Buffon into action courtesy of efforts from Hamsik and Inler, before finding their route to goal blocked by several last ditch interventions as Conte’s men dropped back in numbers.
Vucinic brought a brief moment of respite with a long-range snap shot that was parried clear by De Sanctis on 67 minutes, but the Bianconeri were forced to repel more one-way traffic when Maggio’s shot from an acute angle was turned behind by Buffon.
And the visitors again had Buffon to thank as Napoli went a whisker away from going in front after creating two gilt-edged chances in as many minutes.
First, Cavani angled Maggio’s inviting cross straight at the goalkeeper, then, after Hamsik saw his rasping drive from deep saved, Dzemaili thrashed his follow up wide when he looked odds on to score.
With Juve having to ride out a heavy spell of pressure, Conte looked to provide support by introducing the fresh legs of Matri, Padoin and Pogba in place of Giovinco, Marchisio and Vucinic at varying stages of the second half.
And the substitutes’ introduction had the desired impact as the Bianconeri regained their grip on the midfield and held firm to claim a hard-earned point.
Conte will have every reason to be pleased with the resolute display of his side in challenging circumstances at the San Paolo and will now focus attentions on guaranteeing a Champions League quarter-final spot when Celtic travel to Turin on Wednesday night.
NAPOLI 1-1 JUVENTUS
GOALS: Chiellini 10, Inler 43
De Sanctis; Campagnaro, Cannavaro, Britos (Dzemaili 46); Maggio, Behrami, Inler (Armero 84), Zuniga; Hamsik; Pandev (Insigne 67), Cavani.
Substitutes not used: Rosati, Colombo, Gamberini, Grava, Rolando, Mesto, Donadel, El Kaddouri, Calaiò.
Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Lichtsteiner, Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio (Padoin 90+1), Peluso; Vucinic (Pogba 85), Giovinco (Matri 74).
Substitutes not used: Storari, Rubinho, Marrone, Isla, Asamoah, Giaccherini, Quagliarella.
ASSISTANTS: Tonolini, Cariolato
FOURTH OFFICIAL: Niccolai
BOOKINGS: Vidal 44, Cavani 47, Behrami 54, Cannavaro 56, Zuniga 66, Peluso 87