MILAN, Italy, March 1- A brilliant performance by Brazilian striker Pato saw AC Milan inflict what could prove to be a fatal blow to Napoli's Serie A title hopes here on Monday as the leaders cruised to a 3-0 win.
The 21-year-old – a somewhat controversial omission from last year’s World Cup finals squad – set up Ghanaian Kevin-Prince Boateng for Milan’s second goal and then added a glorious third two minutes later to give them a five point lead over champions Inter Milan while Napoli are six points adrift of the leaders.
Swedish international striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic had opened the scoring for Milan early in the second-half from the penalty spot – a harsh call by referee Gianluca Rocchi for handball on Napoli defender Salvatore Aronica, who while the ball clearly hit his arm it did not seem to be deliberate on his part.
Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said he believed from his viewing point that Rocchi had called it correctly.
"Seen from the sidelines it was a penalty," he said.
"But independent of that moment, Milan produced a good performance, and deserved the victory.
"We really played very well, (Christian) Abbiati didn’t have to make a save and we created several chances.
"The thing that really pleased me was that the team was looking to make it 2-0, and even 3-0.
"The six point lead is a tidy advantage, but there are still a lot of matches to go, including the derby with Inter, and Napoli cannot be discounted yet."
His Napoli counterpart Walter Mazzarri said that it was not a penalty and that his team had been unnerved by it. However, he said there was still a lot of water to flow under the bridge before the title was won.
"We lost a final, but there are still 11 remaining," he said.
"We can lose at Milan, 1-0 or 3-0 changes nothing, now it is imperative that we get back to work and get back to how we were before this match.
"We never spoke of a target, we are just trying to do our best. Losing doesn’t change our routine, we are preparing for our next match against Brescia.
"They (Milan) were too strong, and we were unable to impose our style of play, to pass the ball as we know how to do, and also we were tired having played in the Europa League last Thursday.
"But the penalty dictated the outcome of the match, after it, my guys got upset and became disjointed, they played like kids, and that played into Milan’s hands.
"It is only by playing one discovers things such as happened tonight, that we must remain calm, but we are learning all the time."
Napoli – who exited the Europa League last week – gave few problems to Milan and the game went beyond them in the 77th minute when Pato found an onrushing Boateng and the World Cup star slotted the ball home to spark wild celebrations with the former Portsmouth player tearing off his shirt.
The 77,000 spectators were driven delirious with joy in the 79th minute.
Pato advanced with the ball, saw the Napoli ‘keeper off his line and chipped into the far corner prompting once again huge celebrations with captain Gennaro Gattuso even mimicking his infamous headbutt on Spurs assistant coach Joe Jordan as he embraced Allegri.
Napoli found little in the final 10 minutes to raise their spirits as their two standout players this season Uruguayan striker and scorer of 20 goals Edinson Cavani and Slovakian playmaker Marek Hamsik failed to sparkle when it mattered most.
Milan travel to out of form Juventus, who have lost four of their last six matches, next Saturday.