Gianluigi Buffon’s impressive unbeaten run in Serie A gave Juventus a second reason to celebrate on Friday as the champions opened up a six-point lead on title rivals Napoli with a 1-0 win over Sassuolo.
Paulo Dybala’s superb 36th minute strike made the difference in Turin as Juve, bidding for a record-equalling fifth consecutive crown, took their unbeaten run to 19 games to keep the pressure on Napoli ahead of their trip to Palermo on Sunday.
Reputed giant-killers Sassuolo were unbeaten since a 2-0 home defeat to Roma in early February, Eusebio Di Francesco’s men beating Lazio and AC Milan amid a recent three-game winning run.
But their winning streak came to an end when Dybala latched on to Juan Cuadrado’s well-worked delivery, controlled on the right side of the area and beat Andrea Consigli at the ‘keeper’s far post with a superb curling drive.
Dybala’s 14th strike this season saw him overtake his previous best of 13 while at Palermo, and although he admitted it wasn’t “my best goal”, he told Sky Sport: “It wasn’t too bad either.
“In the first half of the season, we were given up for dead, but now we’re here at the top, in the Italian Cup final (against AC Milan) and travel to Bayern Munich next week.”
When Juve travel to the Allianz Arena looking to build on a shaky 2-2 draw from the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie, they will be hoping Buffon remains impervious.
The Italy veteran started the game unbeaten over 836 minutes and, having surpassed the legendary Dino Zoff’s tally of 903 minutes in the 67th minute, he went on to finish on 926 minutes unbeaten, just three behind the 929-minute record set by Sebastiano Rossi with AC Milan in 1994.
“This win was crucial for our campaign, and for the record of Buffon who totally deserves it,” said Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri.
Juve started brightly and after just 25 seconds Dybala’s volley from Mario Mandzukic’s lay-off skimmed the crossbar, while the Bosnian drilled wide from Dybala’s pass soon after.
Brazilian wingback Alex Sandro saw his back-post header from a free kick blocked by Consigli, while Sassuolo were denied a 20th minute lead when Alfred Duncan fired wide when he ran unchecked on to a cutback into the area.
Allegri’s patience on the touchline was stretched further on 25 minutes when Sami Khedira bundled Dybala’s cut-back over from close range after Mandzukic’s weighted delivery into the box.
Juve had the momentum, with Dybala linking well with Cuadrado but then firing Sandro’s inviting backheel over.
Dybala made amends on 36 minutes when a one-two with Cuadrado saw the Colombian draw three players and then find Dybala in space to beat Consigli with a great curling drive from 20 yards.
Juve remained in command after the restart but a mazy run by Nicola Sansone kept Juve’s back three on their toes, and then Buffon courted controversy when he appeared to handle outside the area.
Juve were running out of ideas but after applause for Buffon just after the hour Juve moved up a gear, only for Khedira to fumble Dybala’s cutback and then Cuadrado scuff the follow-up.
Paul Pogba replaced Khedira with 18 minutes on the clock but Buffon was at full stretch to parry Sansone’s well-hit drive.
At the other end Kwadwo Asamoah got a shot away that failed to threaten but Juve crept closer to their second when Cuadrado controlled well to set up Pogba for a first-timer that forced Consigli into action.
With one eye on their Champions League decider away to last 16 opponents Bayern Munich on March 16, Allegri replaced Dybala with Alvaro Morata 10 minutes and the Spaniard snap shot after bursting into the area had Consigli scrambling onto his back.
Sassuolo refused to buckle though, and soon after Buffon was forced down desperately to save at the second attempt from Sansone’s drive as Juve’s defence backed off tamely.