ROME (AP)Napoli probably wishes Serie A never stopped. That its rhythm wasn’t broken. That its rivals weren’t given time to catch up to its high-paced play.
The southern club was handed its first domestic defeat of the season on Wednesday as the Italian league resumed after a 7+-week break for the World Cup and end-of-the-year holidays.
Edin Dzeko scored near the hour mark, goalkeeper Andre Onana made a big save in the 90th and Inter Milan beat Napoli 1-0 at the San Siro to reopen the race for the Serie A title.
”It’s a big achievement beating Napoli,” Inter coach Simone Inzaghi said. ”It should give us a huge amount of motivation.”
The only other time Napoli lost this season was against Liverpool in the Champions League on Nov. 1 – a result that still enabled the Partenopei to win their group.
All of Napoli’s closest challengers won.
Defending champion AC Milan pulled to within five points by beating Salernitana 2-1, Juventus moved within seven points by beating Cremonese 1-0 for its seventh straight win, and 2021 champion Inter is now eight points back in fourth.
It’s not a good sign for Napoli with two more key matches coming up this month against Juventus and Roma.
With Napoli forwards Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osimhen unable to make an impact, Inter went ahead when Dzeko headed in a perfect cross from Federico Dimarco.
Onana then stopped a missile of a shot from Giacomo Raspadori to preserve the advantage.
Whereas it was the dribbling wizard Kvaratskhelia who put on a show nearly every week before the break, this time it was Inter midfielder Nicolo Barella, whose creative back-heel flick sent Romelu Lukaku in on goal only for the Belgium striker to narrowly miss his shot just over the bar.
”We weren’t able to move the ball around with the same quality as usual,” Napoli coach Luciano Spalletti said. ”Several players weren’t up to form.”
Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa made a Serie A debut to remember for Salernitana.
Even if it wasn’t enough to prevent defending champion Milan from winning.
Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali scored one goal and set up another for Rafael Leao over a five-minute stretch early on, while Federico Bonazzoli pulled one back late for Salernitana.
Otherwise, it was almost all about the 37-year-old Ochoa, who denied Milan on chance after chance to follow up a strong performance for Mexico at his fifth World Cup.
Ochoa set the tone at the start when he stuck his left boot out to stop a shot from Leao in a 1-on-1 situation and also later made a quick-reflex save on Milan forward Olivier Giroud, who was back in action 17 days after playing for France in the World Cup final.
Ochoa could only do so much, though, when Tonali’s through ball set Leao in on goal again and the Portugal international dribbled wide around the goalkeeper before depositing the ball into an empty net from a sharp angle.
Ochoa did stop Tonali five minutes later but the Milan player then got another opportunity when the defense failed to clear and hit the target with a powerful shot.
In all, Ochoa made nine saves, while Milan counterpart Ciprian Tatarusanu made none.
”Ochoa showed what people say about him: that he’s a player with personality, so a big acquisition,” Salernitana coach Davide Nicola said.
Arkadiusz Milik scored with a free kick in stoppage time and scandal-ridden Juventus won 1-0 at Cremonese for its seventh consecutive clean sheet.
But it was far from easy for the Bianconeri as Cremonese hit the woodwork twice and Juventus had trouble getting past goalkeeper Marco Carnesecchi, who was superb.
Juventus was rocked by scandal during the break when the club’s board of directors resigned en masse and the Turin prosecutor’s office requested indictments amid allegations of false accounting.
Roma beat Bologna 1-0 with an early penalty kick from Lorenzo Pellegrini after Paulo Dybala was fouled, and a late goal-line headed clearance from Tammy Abraham preserved the advantage.
Roma moved level on points with fifth-placed Lazio, which gave up a goal advantage in a 2-1 loss at Lecce.
Ciro Immobile put Lazio ahead early on with his 189th Serie A goal, boosting him into sole possession of ninth place on the all-time list, moving him out of a tie with Alessandro Del Piero, Alberto Gilardino and Giuseppe Signori, who scored 188 each.
Lecce struck back with goals from Gabriel Strefezza and Lorenzo Colombo.
Atalanta came back from two goals down for a 2-2 draw at Spezia as Mario Pasalic set up one goal before scoring the equalizer to keep up his form after helping Croatia to a third-place finish at the World Cup.
Also, relegation-threatened Sampdoria won 2-1 at Sassuolo with goals from Manolo Gabbiadini and Tommaso Augello, prompting Samp coach Dejan Stankovic to point to the sky in apparent memory of former teammate Sinisa Mihajlovic, who died last month after a long battle with leukemia.
Torino and Hellas Verona drew 1-1.
PABLO MARI’S RETURN
Spanish defender Pablo Mari came on in the second half of Monza’s 1-1 draw at Fiorentina to mark his return after recovering sooner than expected from a knife attack at a shopping center in October.
Each match was preceded with a minute of silence to remember Pele, the soccer great who died last week.
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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