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Mertens brace conquers Roma, boosts Juventus title bid

Makeshift Napoli forward Dries Mertens (C) shoots as Roma defenders Kostas Manolas (L) and Antonio Rudiger look on during Italian Serie A match at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on March 4, 2017 © AFP / Vincenzo PINTO

MILAN, Italy, Mar 4Napoli’s Dries Mertens hit a brace in a thrilling 2-1 win at Roma that prompted Giallorossi coach Luciano Spalletti to virtually concede the Serie A title race to Juventus on Saturday.

“We have to be realistic. For us it’s now almost impossible to catch Juventus,” said Spalletti after a morale-crushing defeat that could leave Roma 10 points adrift in second place if the Turin giants beat Udinese away on Sunday.

Belgium midfielder Mertens was given the nod ahead of striker Arkadiusz Milik despite the Poland star’s recent return from a five-month injury lay-off.

And coach Maurizio Sarri’s intuition to keep deploying the Belgian midfielder as his main striker was proved right during an end-to-end thrill-fest that saw Napoli soak up long spells of pressure before seeing Mertens punish Roma’s leaky defence.

Napoli took a 1-0 lead into half-time at the Stadio Olimpico after Mertens struck against the run of play to flick the ball over onrushing Wojciech Szczesny on 26 minutes.

Mertens completed his brace, taking his league tally for the season to 18 goals, five minutes into the second half with another cool finish following Lorenzo Insigne’s inswinger towards the back post.

Roma’s defender Antonio Rudiger reacts at the end of the Italian Serie A football match against Napoli on March 4, 2017 © AFP / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE

When Kevin Strootman reduced the arrears on 89 minutes it sparked a dramatic late fightback from Roma that saw Pepe Reina acrobatically palm Diego Perotti’s deflected drive off the crossbar before clearing with his leg.

But Napoli, who saw Sarri sent to the stands for dissent midway through the second period, held on for a valuable win.

After virtually dropping out of title contention last week following a 2-0 defeat to Atalanta which left them trailing Juventus by 12 points, Napoli are now just two points behind Spalletti’s men in the race for the second automatic Champions League spot.

Napoli maintained a recently-imposed media blackout, but Sarri didn’t need to sing Mertens’ or Napoli’s praises — Spalletti and one of his players did it instead.

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“They were much better than us in terms of speed and passing the ball around,” added Spalletti. “In the first half we couldn’t go any faster, and they made it difficult for us to win back possession.”

Roma’s defender Kostas Manolas (L) fights for the ball with Napoli’s defender Raul Albiol during the Italian Serie A football match March 4, 2017 © AFP / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE

“We almost came back to grab a draw but they were better than us,” Perotti told Premium Sport.

Napoli’s win is a potential setback for the few teams hoping a late-season charge will secure a third-place finish and possible entry to the Champions League.

Surprise packages Atalanta are six points behind Napoli before hosting Fiorentina, with Lazio just one point further behind in fifth before travelling to Bologna.

Inter Milan, two points shy of Lazio in seventh place but now two points behind city rivals AC Milan after their 3-1 win at home to Chievo, face Cagliari away on Sunday.

Roma’s defender Bruno Peres (L) argues with Napoli’s midfielder Lorenzo Insigne during the Italian Serie A football match March 4, 2017 © AFP / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE

Even before Napoli’s win at Roma took their lead over Inter to nine points, Nerazzurri coach Stefano Pioli expressed his doubts over qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 2012.

“I couldn’t say,” Pioli said Friday. “Because it doesn’t just depend on us. Now, our focus is on Cagliari, where it won’t be easy to win.”

At a rain-hit San Siro on Saturday, Colombia striker Carlos Bacca went from hero to zero then back again as Milan edged Chievo.

Bacca hit a 24th minute opener and when Jonathan De Guzman levelled from the spot after a dubious penalty award given following the slightest of touches from Mattia De Sciglio, the Colombian skied his effort from the spot on the stroke of half-time.

AC Milan’s forward Carlos Bacca (L) celebrates with defender Cristian Zapata and midfielder Andrea Bertolacci (R) after scoring a goal during the Italian Serie A football match against Chievo March 4, 2017 © AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE

Bacca made amends with his second of the game on 70 minutes, although it took a string of fine saves from 18–old Milan ‘keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, and the Milan crossbar, to keep the hosts in contention before Gianluca Lapadula came off the bench to seal the points from the spot eight minutes from time — thanks to another dubious penalty.

In what was another example of poor officiating in Serie A, referee Fabio Maresca pointed to the spot after Lucas Ocampos tripped himself up by kicking into the turf instead of the ball.

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