Gonzalo Higuain struck from the spot to claim his 27th Serie A goal this season as Napoli maintained their push for a first ‘scudetto’ in 26 years with a patchy 1-0 win at Palermo on Sunday.
A 1-0 win for Juventus over Sassuolo on Friday meant the champions opened up a six-point gap at the top days before a Champions League last 16 decider at Bayern Munich.
But Napoli made sure the suspense is maintained for yet another week with a dominant but cagey performance that was settled by Higuain’s 23rd-minute opener.
Higuain and Lorenzo Insigne both missed chances to wrap up the points before the final whistle, but coach Maurizio Sarri said the Argentine does not deserve criticism.
“Higuain doesn’t need to justify himself. Tonight he did well and was playing totally for the team,” Sarri told Mediaset.
“I’m really happy with what we’ve done so far in this campaign. We’re three points behind Juventus, but if the Bianconeri keep on going the way they’re going there’s not much we can do.”
Roma sit eight points behind Juve and five behind Napoli but, after Edin Dzeko and Alessandro Florenzi struck in a 2-1 win at Udinese, Luciano Spalletti’s men have tightened their grip on third place.
Fiorentina, one of three teams battling to finish among the top three, were leading 1-0 against Verona thanks to Mauro Zarate’s 40th minute opener only to settle for a draw when Eros Pisano headed home at the death.
The point moved Fiorentina back up to fourth but La Viola are level on points (54) with Inter Milan, who claimed a precious 2-1 win over Bologna on Saturday.
Elsewhere Sunday, Miroslav Klose struck a second-half brace as Lazio ended a three-game winless run with a 2-0 home win over Atalanta that left Stefano Pioli’s men in eighth but 13 points behind Inter in the Europa League spots.
AC Milan, meanwhile, look set to battle for one of the league’s two Europa League spots after a scoreless draw at Chievo left the seven-time European champions 11 points behind Roma.
New Palermo coach Walter Novellino was installed only last week after Giuseppe Iachini walked out following a disagreement with owner Maurizio Zamparini, who had recalled the Italian to the fray last month after sacking him in November.
Sarri added: “It wasn’t easy against Palermo because they were determined to come bouncing back after everything that has happened this week.”
Any hopes Novellino had of stopping the rot at the Sicilian club were kept in check only two minutes after kick-off.
Palermo ‘keeper Stefano Sorrentino intercepted Allan’s daisycutter cross after two minutes and Insigne narrowly missed a simple tap-in.
The hosts had reason to complain when the referee pointed to the spot on 23 minutes after Raul Albiol tumbled all too easily when held by Sinisa Andelkovic, but Higuain made no mistake sending Sorrentino the wrong way from the penalty spot.
Palermo should have done better when they launched a promising counter-attack that saw Oscar Hiljemark collect Franco Vazquez’s cross-field ball, only to shoot straight at Kalidou Koulibaly.
Alberto Gilardino was ruled offside after he rose to meet an inviting cross in the area, but the striker turned provider on the stroke of half-time for Vazquez, whose daisycutter forced Pepe Reina to parry for a corner.
Napoli upped their game in the second half but just couldn’t find the net.
Allan sent Higuain free on the right but the Argentine’s shot from an impossible angle was stopped by Sorrentino and when Insigne collected his own rebound in front of three Palermo defenders the winger fired over as Higuain screamed for service to his right.
Palermo’s fans were growing increasingly frustrated and the game had to be halted briefly halfway during the second period to allow firemen to remove burning flares from the pitch.
But the incidents only seemed to fire up the visitors, Higuain setting Dries Mertens up with a lovely touch only for Sorrentino to block the Belgian’s volley from eight yards at full stretch
Minutes later Insigne powered down the middle but with Higuain up ahead the diminutive winger unleashed a drive that sailed over.