OLD LADY’S GRIP TIGHTENS
Roma manager concedes title to Juventus
NAPOLI’S Dries Mertens hit a brace in a thrilling 2-1 win at Roma that prompted Giallorossi coach Luciano Spalletti to virtually concede the Serie A title race to Juventus on Saturday.
“We have to be realistic. For us it’s now almost impossible to catch Juventus,” said Spalletti after a morale-crushing defeat that could leave Roma 10 points adrift in second place if the Turin giants beat Udinese away late yesterday.
Belgium midfielder Mertens was given the nod ahead of striker Arkadiusz Milik despite the Poland star’s recent return from a five-month injury lay-off.
And coach Maurizio Sarri’s intuition to keep deploying the Belgian midfielder as his main striker was proved right during an end-to-end thrill-fest that saw Napoli soak up long spells of pressure before seeing Mertens punish Roma’s leaky defence.
Napoli took a 1-0 lead into halftime at the Stadio Olimpico after Mertens struck against the run of play to flick the ball over onrushing Wojciech Szczesny on 26 minutes.
Mertens completed his brace, taking his league tally for the season to 18 goals, five minutes into the second half with another cool finish following Lorenzo Insigne’s inswinger towards the back post.
When Kevin Strootman reduced the arrears on 89 minutes it sparked a dramatic late fightback from Roma that saw Pepe Reina acrobatically palm Diego Perotti’s deflected drive off the crossbar before clearing with his leg.
Napoli are now just two points behind Spalletti’s men in the race for the second automatic Champions League spot.
Napoli maintained a recentlyimposed media blackout, but Sarri didn’t need to sing Mertens’ or Napoli’s praises — Spalletti and one of his players did it instead.
“They were much better than us in terms of speed and passing the ball around,” added Spalletti. “In the first half we couldn’t go any faster, and they made it difficult for us to win back possession.”
“We almost came back to grab a draw but they were better than us,” Perotti told Premium Sport.
Napoli’s win is a potential setback for the few teams hoping a late-season charge will secure a third-place finish and possible entry to the Champions League.
Surprise packages Atalanta are six points behind Napoli with Lazio just one point further behind in fifth.
At a rain-hit San Siro on Saturday, Colombia striker Carlos Bacca went from hero to zero then back again as Milan edged Chievo.
Bacca hit a 24th minute opener and when Jonathan De Guzman levelled from the spot after a dubious penalty award given following the slightest of touches from Mattia De Sciglio, the Colombian skied his effort from the spot on the stroke of half-time.
Bacca made amends with his second of the game on 70 minutes, although it took a string of fine saves from 18-year-old Milan ‘keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, and the Milan crossbar, to keep the hosts in contention before Gianluca Lapadula came off the bench to seal the points from the spot eight minutes from time — thanks to another dubious penalty.
Roma's Mohamed Salah (left) fails to get the better of Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina on Saturday.