OLD LADY’S GRIP TIGHT­ENS

Roma man­ager con­cedes ti­tle to Ju­ven­tus

New Straits Times - - Sport -

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.

EPA PIC

Roma's Mo­hamed Salah (left) fails to get the bet­ter of Napoli goal­keeper Pepe Reina on Satur­day.

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