Gonzalo Higuain scored his 11th and 12th goals of the season as Napoli outclassed AC Milan 3-1 at the San Paolo to grab their first Serie A win in four games on Saturday.
Napoli succumbed 3-2 to Roma in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final in midweek and welcomed an apparently resurgent Milan side hoping to return to winning ways after two successive draws and a 3-0 defeat to Atalanta last week.
However any fears that Milan would cause an upset were dashed by a commanding home performance which left striker Mario Balotelli in tears after he was replaced with 20 minutes remaining.
Milan, unbeaten in three league games since Clarence Seedorf took the helm, stunned the hosts when Moroccan Adel Taarabt scored a fine individual effort seven minutes into his debut.
However a Gokhan Inler shot was deflected into Christian Abbiati’s net barely four minutes later and as Milan failed to fire the hosts turned on the class to see Higuain strike in the 56th and 82nd minutes.
Napoli coach Rafael Benitez offered his praise to Higuain but told Sky Sport Italia: “I have to compliment the whole side... of course Higuain is a player that can make the difference, but he still needs his teammates.
“It was a quality performance from us and we had the right intensity.”
Napoli’s 14th win restored their three-point lead over Fiorentina, who beat Atalanta 2-0 earlier, although Rafael Benitez’s side are 12 points behind leaders Juventus.
Juventus are away to Verona on Sunday, when Roma, second at nine points but with a game in hand, face Lazio away in the city derby at the Olympic Stadium.
Milan remain 10th, six points off the first Europa League place and now 18 behind 18 behind Napoli in the first available Champions League qualifying spot.
Taarabt described himself as the ‘Moroccan Balotelli’ and certaintly outshone the Italian version when he intercepted in his own half and curled the ball past Pepe Reina in the seventh minute as the home defence backed off.
Milan’s joy lasted only four minutes, Inler’s shot taking a deflection off the leg of Nigel De Jong to leave Abbiati rooted in the Milan goal.
Napoli should have had a second before the interval when a combination of Abbiati and the post thwarted efforts from Lorenzo Insigne and Cristian Maggio before the former then missed with a header from Dries Mertens’ delivery.
Milan forward Robinho was replaced with Kaka, who had been suffering from flu, for the start of the second half but the Brazilian magic was missing.
Shots by Marek Hamsik and Insigne sent warnings to Milan and the pressure paid off on 56 minutes when Higuain slipped past Philippe Mexes to head Inler’s probing cross past a static Abbiati.
Michael Essien, signed from Chelsea last week, raised hopes for Milan with a long-distance strike which Reina failed to hold but Higuain threatened again when he just missed connecting with Jorginho’s inch-perfect delivery.
Seedorf replaced Urby Emanuelson with Riccardo Montolivo on 70 minutes and then Balotelli, after fluffing a half-chance, was replaced minutes later with Giampaolo Pazzini.
Pazzini came close when he chested down Montolivo’s cross but could only swipe at the ball as Reina came out to block. Balotelli, meanwhile, sat on the bench with tears streaming down his face.
Seedorf added: “I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s a human reaction and it’s not the first time it’s happened to a player. It’s also happened to me.”
Napoli were a step ahead of the Milan defence when Higuain struck his second of the night and 12th of the season.
Hamsik went unchallenged on the edge of the area and after the Slovakian set up Jose Callejon on the right, the Milan defence failed to react allowing the Spaniard an easy cut-back for Higuain to slot past Abbiati.
Elsewhere, Josip Ilicic and Rafal Wolski gave Fiorentina a 2-0 win over Atalanta. Woslki struck the match-sealing tally in the 86th minute after Luca Cigarini was sent off in the 81st.
Antonio di Natale, Bruno and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu all scored for Udinese as well in a 3-0 win over Chievo.