Gonzalo Higuain struck in either half as Napoli toppled 10-man Inter Milan 2-1 in a spectacular clash at the San Paolo to go top of the Serie A table on Monday.
Inter travelled south for the first big away test of what they hope will be a title-winning campaign, but with just a two-point cushion on a Napoli side whose last defeat came on the opening day of the season.
Inter were shell-shocked by the lightning start of Maurizio Sarri’s men and their hopes of staying top suffered a blow when Yuto Nagatomo saw red a minute before the interval.
But Inter regrouped and Adem Ljajic reduced arrears on the hour with a fine individual strike. Yet despite a battling finish that saw the visitors hit the woodwork twice, it wasn’t enough to stop Napoli going a point clear at the top for the first time this season.
Inter drop to second with Fiorentina, held 1-1 at Sassuolo earlier Monday, a point further off the pace in third.
Higuain and Napoli’s players milked the applause at an appreciative San Paolo and the Argentina striker dedicated taking his league-leading tally for the season to 12 goals to the city and the fans.
“It’s a magic night. I’m happy for the fans, for the team and for the people of Napoli,” Higuain told Sky Sport.
“I think we deserve it, it’s not often we’re in the lead. The season is still long, but we have to capitalise on going top.”
Roma’s shock 2-0 home defeat to Atalanta has left embattled Rudi Garcia’s side in fourth at four points behind Napoli, with champions Juventus now up to fifth, at seven points off the pace.
Napoli began at break-neck speed and a panicky Inter were made to pay for Jeison Murillo’s mis-hit clearance on the edge of the area when it found its way to Higuain via a deft touch from Jose Callejon.
The Argentinian was left in space on the right and coolly volleyed past Samir Handanovic.
Nagatomo, who had earlier been cautioned for a foul on Callejon, was given his marching orders, rather harshly, when he was cautioned for a second time after sliding in late but without malice to challenge Allan, who was left writhing on the ground.
Mancini hit out at the officiating when he told to Premium Sport: “Nagatomo didn’t deserve his first yellow card, Callejon simulated the foul. The red card that sent Nagatomo off for a half-foul was decisive.
“Without the red, we wouldn’t have lost.”
But when asked about Inter’s biggest tormentor, Mancini didn’t hide: “Higuain’s an amazing striker. You give him half a ball and he scores.”
Mancini introduced full-back Alex Telles for striker Mauro Icardi but Napoli soon added to their tally. Higuain was unstoppable as he ran on to Raul Albiol’s powerful header and out-sprinted Inter’s centre-backs to smash his finish past Handanovic.
Higuain’s 12th league goal this season took him clear of Sampdoria striker Eder.
Inter reduced arrears minutes later when Ljajic fired low into the near bottom corner through a crowd of defenders.
Inter almost caused a sensation in added-on time when a Stevan Jovetic header bounced off the post. In the follow-up, Reina scrambled to tip Miranda’s effort on to the other upright.
Earlier, title-chasing Fiorentina spurned the chance to go top after a 1-1 draw at feisty Sassuolo.
Borja Valero broke the deadlock after five minutes but Fiorentina were made to pay for a series of misses when Sergio Floccari headed home the leveller three minutes before the interval.
Fiorentina coach Paulo Sousa said his side were “tired” after a 2-2 Europa League draw at FC Basel last week.
“I’m disappointed, we paid for our efforts last Thursday and after the interval Sassuolo moved up a gear.
“We missed the chance for 2-0, then in the second half we got tired and lost concentration.”