Mario Mandzukic struck on the cusp of half-time as champions Juventus stretched their lead over Napoli to six points with a 1-0 win over resilient Empoli that took their unbeaten run to 21 games.

Mandzukic was given the nod to partner Alvaro Morata up front after Argentine striker Paulo Dybala, as expected, was left on the bench by Massimiliano Allegri.

And after Morata came close with a long-range missile that rattled the crossbar, Mandzukic gave the Turin giants a 44th-minute lead when he rose to meet Paul Pogba’s cheeky chip inside the Empoli area.

Juve enjoyed the lion’s share of the chances both before and after the Croatian striker’s opener, but had to settle for a slim victory which, nonetheless, keeps Allegri’s men on track for a record-equalling fifth consecutive title.

Napoli, bidding for their first Serie A title in 26 years, have the chance to restore their three-point deficit with a win at Udinese on Sunday, when third-placed Roma are at Lazio in the ‘Derby della Capitale’.

But Allegri added a little pressure to that challenge when he told Sky Sport: “We have to take our hats off to Napoli for the great season they’re having.

“I’ll be watching their game against Udinese and I hope they drop points. I think that’s only normal.”

Although Juve dominated, Empoli — adept at keeping the ball on the ground and resolute in defence — were a tough nut to crack.

“Empoli play good football and in the first half they put us in difficulty a few times,” added Allegri.

But with no wins in their past 12 games, that wasn’t enough for Empoli coach Marco Giampaolo, who said: “Normally, you can be happy if you lose like that to Juve, but we’re not.”

With Giorgio Chiellini returning to the defence after a one-month injury lay-off, Allegri sprung a surprise by deploying a 3-5-2, with up-and-coming Daniele Rugani holding fort in the middle of their back three.

The hosts had the momentum from the outset, when Swiss wingback Stephan Lichtsteiner tested Lukasz Skorupski with a long-range effort.

Empoli, however, came looking to score an upset and on the quarter-hour Riccardo Saponara missed a great chance when he ballooned over from yards out.

It alerted Juve to the danger and from then on Skorupski was the busiest of the two ‘keepers.

Skorupski pulled off a great block to stop Mandzukic’s drive from eight yards out after he beat the offside trap to latch on to Pogba’s smart through ball.

The ‘keeper could only look on when Morata unleashed a missile that rattled the crossbar on 22 minutes, while at the other end Gianluigi Buffon watched in relief as Massimo Maccarone glanced a header wide of his far post.

Chiellini got in the thick of the action as Juve set up camp, the left-back drilling just wide after collecting Roberto Pereyra’s through ball.

The hosts maintained the momentum and minutes later Pogba picked Mandzukic out with a great chip that the big striker headed home for a timely opener.

Juve resumed in similar fashion after the interval and after good build-up play by Lichtsteiner, Mandzukic headed the Swiss midfielder’s cross on to Morata at the back post, but the Spaniard was closed down.

Allegri was forced to take a hobbling Chiellini off soon after, attacking midfielder Juan Cuadrado replacing the veteran defender and making an almost immediate impact.

Juventus vs EmpoliA mishit clearanace by Skorupski moments later caused panic as Cuadrado chased the loose ball but a defender was soon back to cover.

Empoli fashioned a rare chance soon after when Maccarone collected Manuel Pucciarelli’s header inside the area, but with his back to goal and surrounded by Juve bodies it was a tame follow-up by the veteran striker.

Simone Zaza replaced Mandzukic on 65 minutes, while Ghanaian Kwadwo Asamoah was given a rare outing when he replaced Pereyra with 10 minutes to play.

Juve should have added more in the closing minutes but the tap-in was just beyond Asamoah’s reach after Skorupski spilled Morata’s drive.

Morata then powered down the left in the closing minutes to send a generous cutback into the path of Zaza, but a diving Skorupski had the first-timer covered.

By AFP

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