Simone Zaza scored two minutes from time to give Juventus a 1-0 win over Napoli on Saturday as they snatched the Serie A lead from their opponents with a 15th league win in a row.
The game, which began with Napoli two points ahead of Juve, appeared to be petering out into a goalless draw when Zaza collected the ball with his back to goal, turned and fired an unstoppable left-foot shot past Pepe Reina.
Zaza has struggled for a place in the team this season and was the subject of media speculation over a move in the transfer window. He appeared to have blown his chance altogether when he was sent off against Genoa in his last appearance.
“It was a very tactical match and this was an important moment in the championship on a psychological level,” said the Juve coach, Massimiliano Allegri, whose team were 11 points off the lead after the first 10 games of the season.
The Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci was at the centre of the action after he collided with his team-mate Sami Khedira early on, made a crucial interception to prevent an almost certain Napoli goal and went off injured after half-time.
Napoli, aiming to win the title for the first time since 1990, had won their previous eight games and boasted the league’s most prolific attack with 53 goals. But the veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon barely had a save to make as Juve’s defence, the stingiest in the country, prevailed.
“It was a tight game with few chances. We gave almost nothing away and only lost because of one unfortunate episode,” said the Napoli coach, Maurizio Sarri.
Juan Cuadrado tested Reina for the first time after 13 minutes with a long-range shot and Paul Pogba curled a free kick narrowly wide from nearly 30m.
A Napoli goal looked on the cards when Elseid Hysaj’s cross appeared to be heading straight for Gonzalo Higuaín, unmarked in front of goal, but Bonucci came from nowhere to stick out his leg and deflect the ball out for a corner.
A moment of brilliance from Pogba nearly unlocked the Napoli defence on the hour as he controlled the ball on his chest and slipped the ball inside to Dybala, whose shot flashed over the crossbar. A stalemate appeared likely until Zaza, heavily criticised for recent performances, produced his moment on inspiration.
“I stopped him from leaving in January as I did with other players,” said Allegri. “Between now and the end of the season the difference will be made by the players who have played less and are freshest in the mind.”
Juventus are now two wins away from the Serie A record for consecutive victories established by Internazionale in 2006-07 – if Juve win their next league game, in Bologna next weekend, it would be down to Inter themselves to stop that happening, when they visit Juventus Stadium on 28 February.