Napoli extended their lead at the top of Serie A to eight points on Tuesday after beating Empoli 2-0 to claim their 10th straight league win, before nearest challengers AC Milan drew 0-0 with struggling Cremonese.
Hirving Lozano’s 69th-minute spot-kick and a neat late finish from Piotr Zielinski ensured hosts Napoli made their way past a resilient Empoli side and moved further ahead of Milan, whose title defence is faltering.
Napoli now have an ominous lead on the rest of the league heading into the final matches of 2022 this weekend, as they hunt their first league title in over three decades.
“The road ahead is still long and there are many pitfalls. We need to stay at it and be aware of the importance of the challenges ahead of us,” said coach Luciano Spalletti to DAZN.
Empoli, who finished with 10 men as Sebastiano Luperto picked up a second booking shortly after Lozano’s goal, stay 14th and seven points above the relegation zone.
The Tuscans beat Napoli twice last season and all-but ended their Scudetto challenge in April when they came back from two goals behind to stun Spalletti’s side.
And on Tuesday they frustrated Napoli, who were without injured wing wizard Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, for large periods of the match.
Napoli were awarded their soft penalty after Razvan Marin was judged to have fouled Victor Osimhen, five minutes after the Nigeria striker had headed over the home side’s only previous real chance.
“I’d rather not talk about the penalty,” Empoli coach Paolo Zanetti said later.
“The contact didn’t seem that obvious as to be a penalty but the referee saw it that way and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Luperto’s sending off effectively ended Empoli’s challenge and Zielinski sent the Stadio Maradona into party mode with two minutes left when he perfectly met Lozano’s cross with a first-time strike which opened his league account for the campaign.
Milan’s defence falters
Milan can be joined by Lazio and Atalanta on 30 points with wins over Lecce and Monza on Wednesday after a poor night for Stefano Pioli’s side at Cremonese.
The away side were without suspended stars Olivier Giroud and Theo Hernandez and a clutch of injured players, and that pair’s combination of incisiveness and clinical finishing was sorely missed at the Stadio Giovanni Zini.
Pioli also started with explosive winger Rafael Leao on the bench as he switched things up against a team nestled just inside the relegation zone after failing to win in the opening 14 games of their first Serie A season since 1996.
Milan created chances, in particular in the first half, but were kept out by an inspired Marco Carnesecchi.
Cremonese goalkeeper Carnesecchi made impressive saves from Divock Origi, Malick Thiaw and Junior Messias, while Ante Rebic missed a huge chance to put Milan ahead in the 25th minute went he sent a free header wide.
Origi had a goal rightly ruled not given for offside in the 57th minute, and after Leao was eventually brought on by Pioli he was denied the winner 11 minutes later by the outstretched hand of Carnesecchi.
Milan couldn’t conjure up anything else and let Napoli stretch even further away from the chasing pack.
“We could have done more. We played OK in the first half but the second half wasn’t good enough,” Pioli said to DAZN.
“We should have created more, there should have been more movement, we shouldn’t have been so sloppy technically. We didn’t create the amount of chances we needed to be more dangerous.”
Udinese’s slump in results continued after drawing 1-1 at Spezia, their fifth draw in a six-match winless run which has left them eighth ahead of their trip to Napoli on Saturday.