Shades of Maradona as Higuain leads Napoli to top of Serie A
ROME (AP) — Displaying a form at the San Paolo stadium not witnessed since Diego Maradona’s exploits, Gonzalo Higuain scored twice in a 2-1 win over 10-man Inter Milan on Monday to provide a big boost for Napoli’s title chances.
Napoli leapfrogged Inter for the Serie A lead, moving one point ahead of the Milan club as it seeks its first Italian league title since Maradona led the southern squad to the championship in 1987 and 1990.
Napoli hadn’t had sole possession of the lead since its second title 25 years ago.
“It was a magical evening,” Higuain said. “I think we deserve first place. ... Although there’s still a long way to go in the season and it’s going to be a struggle. I don’t know any squad that hasn’t won something without a struggle.”
After just 64 seconds, Higuain took a pass from Jose Callejon inside the area and used one touch before unleashing a powerful shot that Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic had no chance on.
Then shortly after the hour mark, the bearded Argentina international finished off a counterattack by sprinting past two defenders and chipping in a delightful angled shot for his league-leading 12th goal in 14 matches.
It marked the eighth consecutive home game in which Higuain has scored. Only Christian Vieri (11 consecutive home matches) and Alberto Gilardino (nine) have done better in Italy since 1994.
“Higuain is extraordinary player and unfortunately he can make an impact with just one touch,” Inter coach Roberto Mancini said.
Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Inter in the 67th with an accurate shot from near the edge of the area that was slotted inside the near post.
Inter fullback Yuto Nagatomo was sent off for a questionable second yellow card shortly before halftime for a sliding tackle on Allan.
Inter hit the post twice in the final seconds of added time of an entertaining match.
Napoli hasn’t lost since a 2-1 defeat at Sassuolo in its season opener — the debut of new coach Maurizio Sarri.
Sarri was widely criticized when Napoli drew its second and third matches of the season — with even Maradona questioning the credentials of a coach who had never managed a big club before.
But Napoli has been a force since the end of September and Higuain has acknowledged that Sarri’s impact on him has been decisive after the forward struggled under Rafa Benitez last season.
Earlier, third-place Fiorentina drew 1-1 at Sassuolo in a match that highlighted Giuseppe Rossi’s struggle to return to form after a series of knee injuries.
Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after just five minutes after being left unmarked to redirect a cross from Josip Ilicic that wound its way past several players inside the area.
Sergio Floccari equalized for Sassuolo shortly before halftime with a header, leaping between two defenders to meet a cross from Sime Vrsaljko.
Fiorentina is one point behind Inter.
In Naples, the San Paolo stadium was full for a highly anticipated 1 vs. 2 matchup and the home fans were quickly rewarded when Higuain took advantage of Napoli’s first chance.
For his second, Raul Albiol’s header set Higuain off to the races and the striker muscled off Jeison Murillo and Miranda before finding the target.
Higuain had a chance at a hat trick but missed just wide in the final minutes before Inter came close to equalizing twice.
In Reggio Emilia, Rossi got a rare start at forward for Fiorentina but was replaced by Nikola Kalinic early in the second half after failing to make an impact.
Once he sat down on the bench, Rossi shook his head in disappointment.
The United States-born former Italy international returned in August after 15 months out following the latest surgery on his right knee, which he first injured four years ago while with Villarreal against Real Madrid.
Rossi is scoreless in eight Serie A appearances. He has two goals in the Europa League.
“Rossi is working toward getting back in his best form and we want to aid him by letting him play,” Fiorentina manager Paulo Sousa said.
Sassuolo is an impressive sixth, level on points with AC Milan one point behind four-time defending champion Juventus.
Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf