Napoli ended Juventus’ 22-match unbeaten streak in Serie A with a hard-fought but ultimately deserved 2-0 victory on Sunday evening.
Jose Callejon finally got the better of Gianluigi Buffon midway through the first half before Dries Mertens’ brilliant finish with 10 minutes remaining clinched the match, as Italy’s likely champions suffered just their second defeat of the campaign.
Buffon was perhaps the busiest player on the pitch over the course of the 90 minutes, saving twice from Callejon in the first half before producing breathtaking acrobatics to deny Marek Hamsik and Faouzi Ghoulam on either side of the break.
Despite the defeat, Antonio Conte’s side remain 11 points clear at the top of the table, although AS Roma can reduce that margin to eight if they win their game in hand.
Napoli’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League are enhanced by the triumph, however, as they now lead Fiorentina by 12 points in the race for third.
They are also just six points behind Roma, keeping alive the possibility of finishing second and avoiding a play-off to enter Europe's most lucrative competition.
"This is a very important win, because it keeps us close to Roma," Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne said, per AP. "We're going to fight until the end."
So here's a thought: Juventus's lead could be down to just five points by the time they next play in Serie A.— Paolo Bandini (@Paolo_Bandini) March 30, 2014
#Napoli were absolutely incredible tonight. Truly excellent. Ghoulam, Hamsik, all of them.— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) March 30, 2014
Juventus were in trouble almost from the off, as Napoli showed real attacking intent from almost the first whistle. Callejon warmed up Buffon with a shot on goal that the Italian was more than equal to, before Hamsik forced him into a stretching save that drew gasps from the crowd inside San Paolo Stadium.
Callejon was again denied by Buffon shortly after, having been played through by Lorenzo Insigne, but soon after the Spaniard would finally win the battle. It was a controversial goal for Juventus, who had seen Giorgio Chiellini forced off the pitch to change his shirt after bleeding on it from a facial wound.
The captain was still trying to get back into position as Insigne swung a cross in right where he should have been, and Callejon ghosted in behind his man to turn a close-range shot past the frustrated Buffon.
In the second half Napoli continued to press, but Buffon was back to being an immovable object in the Juventus goal. Ghoulam was the latest to be denied, the full-back’s fine free-kick somehow tipped away by the in-form veteran.
Conte made changes—bringing on Mauricio Isla, Claudio Marchisio and Mirko Vucinic to change the shape and threat of his attack—but it was a move from Napoli boss Rafael Benitez that would seal the points with just under 10 minutes remaining.
43 - The Serie A record for scoring in most matches in a row ends at 43 as Juventus lose 2-0 at Napoli. Juve's 2nd league defeat of season.— Infostrada Sports (@InfostradaLive) March 30, 2014
Mertens was not named in Benitez’s starting XI, but he made the difference off the bench, evading Claudio Marchisio to latch onto Goran Pandev’s high ball before dragging a powerful shot across Buffon and into the far corner.
Juventus had a handful of shots throughout the match, but few of any real clarity and danger, with Stephan Lichtsteiner forcing Pepe Reina into action from a couple of half-chances and Pablo Osvaldo squandering an opening or two.
A surprising six minutes of injury time offered the visitors a glimmer of hope of a dramatic late comeback—but after Reina rushed from his line to thwart Arturo Vidal’s burst toward goal the points were secured.