MILAN (AP) — Defending champion Juventus took advantage of Roma’s loss at Napoli to move three points clear at the top of Serie A with a 2-0 win at Empoli on Saturday.
Andrea Pirlo broke the deadlock with a trademark free kick on the hour mark and Alvaro Morata sealed the result on the day Juventus celebrated the 117th anniversary of its foundation.
It was the 35-year-old Pirlo’s first goal of the season following a spell on the sidelines with injury.
“I’m improving, I’m working hard during the week and I feel better every match,” Pirlo said. “It was a difficult match but we risked little, we grew in the second half and closed the match.”
Empoli also had Lorenzo Tonelli sent off in stoppage time for bringing down Carlos Tevez as the Juventus striker was clear on goal.
Earlier, Gonzalo Higuain scored again to help Napoli beat title hopeful Roma 2-0 amid high tension at the Stadio San Paolo.
“I think that today everyone pushed hard to get this result, playing with a really high tempo,” Napoli coach Rafa Benitez said. “Today we could have done even better, but creating so many great chances against such a strong opponent shows that we really performed well. We still need to be a bit more clinical. It’s a question of time and confidence. This victory will certainly help.”
Higuain, who hadn’t scored in the opening seven rounds, netted his fifth goal in six days as Napoli got off to a blistering start.
The Argentine turned provider to help Jose Callejon seal the result late on.
Napoli moved provisionally third ahead of the rest of the weekend’s fixtures.
“We went behind in the opening minutes and the deficit could have been worse at halftime,” Roma coach Rudi Garcia said. “We had very few chances after the break but that means Napoli was stronger than us in this match and the best team won.”
Elsewhere, Paolo De Ceglie scored his first career brace to hand bottom club Parma a surprise 2-0 win against Inter Milan, which will increase the pressure on Nerazzurri coach Walter Mazzarri.
Parma had lost its previous six matches to equal its worst ever run in the top flight.
Juventus knew it had a chance to restore its three-point advantage after being caught by Roma midweek when it lost 1-0 at Genoa in its first defeat of the season.
With that in mind, Juventus was surprisingly sluggish in the first half although Sebastian Giovinco — who spent a season on loan at Empoli — had two decent opportunities blocked in the opening 10 minutes.
Juventus stepped up a gear after the restart and had a series of chances before free kick specialist Pirlo broke the deadlock with a precise effort over the wall and into the bottom left corner.
It was Pirlo’s 26th free-kick goal in Serie A and sees him close in on Sinisa Mihajlovic’s record of 27.
Empoli almost leveled immediately but Gianluigi Buffon pulled off a one-handed save to deny Manuel Pucciarelli.
Juventus should have doubled its lead but Tevez’s effort was parried by Bassi and Claudio Marchisio turned the follow-up onto the right upright.
It did score a second moments later when Morata curled an unstoppable shot under the crossbar and into the top left corner.
The match between Napoli and Roma was considered high-risk as it was the first time the two teams had met since clashes that led to a fan’s death from a shooting before the Italian Cup final in May.
Napoli fan Ciro Esposito died 50 days after he was allegedly shot by a Roma fan. An investigation over the shooting is ongoing.
Roma fans were barred from traveling to Naples for the game but there were still concerns of reprisal attacks and there were tight security measures put in place.
Napoli, which could have been 3-0 up inside the opening 12 minutes, took the lead in the third minute when Higuain acrobatically volleyed it in Lorenzo Insigne’s deflected effort with a scissor kick.
Inisgne then drilled the ball just wide of the left upright before unleashing a curler which Roma goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis did well to fingertip around the base of his post.
Moments later, Callejon’s fierce strike crashed off the crossbar.
Marek Hamsik also hit the crossbar shortly before halftime after De Sanctis had denied Higuain.
Napoli doubled its lead six minutes from time as a delightful diagonal pass from Higuain allowed Callejon to slot past De Sanctis.