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Juventus hot-shot Higuain keeps Roma, Dzeko at bay

Juventus’ forward Gonzalo Higuain celebrates after scoring a goal on February 12, 2017 © AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE

Milan, Italy, Feb 12 – Gonzalo Higuain struck his 21st Serie A brace to go level top of the Serie A scoring charts in a 2-0 win at Cagliari that edged Juventus closer to a record sixth consecutive scudetto Sunday.

Higuain’s 17th and 18th goals of the league season means the Argentina striker is tied with Edin Dzeko, who missed a penalty then made amends with Roma’s second in a 2-0 win at Crotone, in the race for the Capocannoniere (top scorer) award.

Juventus sit seven points ahead of Luciano Spalletti’s Roma, who left Francesco Totti at home for a trip to Calabria where Mohamed Salah provided assists for Radja Nainggolan and Dzeko.

Napoli, 2-0 winners at Genoa on Friday, sit third at nine points off the pace days ahead of their Champions League trip to Real Madrid.

Juventus are not in action in Europe until they visit Porto on February 22 and Massimiliano Allegri’s men have capitalised to further underline their scudetto bid.

Despite Juve’s numerical advantage after Nicolo Barella saw red for a second caution on 67 minutes, Higuain says it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

Roma forward Edin Dzeko (R) fights for the ball with Crotone defender Noe Dussenne during an Italian Serie A match at the Ezio Scida Stadium in Crotone on February 12, 2017 © AFP / Carlo HERMANN

“We did well, but it was a difficult match because we just couldn’t get into our stride at the start,” Higuain told Premium Sport.

“Once we broke the deadlock, it started going a lot better, and even more so after their expulsion.”

It was the 24th time in Serie A that Higuain, who now has 21 braces and three hat-tricks, had scored multiple goals in a game since arriving from Real Madrid in 2013.

Allegri told Sky Sport: “He’s an extraordinary player. He works hard for the team, and he’s got great fitness.

“The others are making sacrifices too. Dybala was great today and deserved to score.”

Dzeko went from zero to hero in Crotone. After missing his second successive penalty this season, he made amends with an 18th league goal of the campaign although it took Nainggolan’s fine angled strike off Salah’s ball in the 40th minute to break the deadlock.

Roma’s midfielder Radja Nainggolan (L) celebrates with teammate Bruno Peres after scoring during an Italian Serie A match against FC Crotone at the Ezio Scida Stadium in Crotone on February 12, 2017 © AFP / Carlo HERMANN

The visitors doubled their lead shortly after the interval when Dzeko pounced on Salah’s cutback to seal the points.

He admitted afterwards: “Next time I will be telling someone else to take the penalty, but it’s not a major problem. The important thing is we won today.”

Spalletti was all praise for Salah on his full return from the Africa Cup of Nations, where the inspirational Egyptian front man lost in the final to Cameroon.

“It was a great comeback match for him, his ball control shone through today,” said Spalletti.

As Juve, Roma and Napoli contend the Champions League places, Inter Milan and Lazio haven’t given up hope of a top three finish yet.

Inter’s 2-0 San Siro win over Empoli came in the absence of Mauro Icardi, Ivan Perisic — who are serving two and one-game bans respectively — and injured Marcelo Brozovic (toe).

Given Icardi and Perisic have scored 22 of Inter’s 37 league goals this season, Nerazzurri fans had cause for concern, but pre-match fears were settled by Eder’s chested 14th minute effort and Antonio Candreva sealed the points in the second half with a strike from distance off Eder’s assist.

Inter moved up to fourth, 15 points behind Juventus, although Lazio can reclaim fourth spot with a win at home to AC Milan on Monday.

Inter Milan’s midfielder Antonio Candreva celebrates after scoring against Empoli FC at “San Siro” Stadium in Milan on February 12, 2017 © AFP / MIGUEL MEDINA

Candreva said Inter’s faint Champions League qualifying hopes are still alive.

“It was a positive performance from us that shows we’re still in it. Now, for the Champions League, we have to put the pressure on ourselves,” he told Sky.

“We will try to win all our remaining games.”

Elsewhere, Atalanta’s push for a place in next season’s Europa League was given a boost by a comfortable 3-1 win away to relegation-haunted Palermo.

They sit fifth, on the same points as Inter and only six behind Napoli.