Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon starred as Juventus and Napoli warmed up for their respective Champions League opening group games with comprehensive wins over Sassuolo and Palermo on Saturday.
Higuain, who signed for Juventus from Napoli in a big-money move over the summer, answered his recent critics with a well-taken brace in a one-sided 3-1 win over Sassuolo in Turin.
In Palermo, Marek Hamsik got Napoli off the mark with a 47th minute opener, his 82nd goal for the club overtaking Diego Maradona’s 81-goal haul when he helped them to their two league titles, in 1987 and 1990.
Callejon’s brace came amid a poor defensive display from an outclassed Palermo, but still took the Spaniard’s tally to four in three games.
But it is Juve who are the most fancied Italian side in Europe this season, and Higuain’s third goal of the campaign — after his high-profile move to Turin in the summer — has raised hopes Juve, beaten finalists in 2015, can go all the way, starting with a home win against reigning Europa League champions Sevilla on Wednesday.
Higuain, making his Juve debut after several frantic weeks of trying to lose the excess pounds he piled on over a summer, was buoyed after a promising Juventus display.
“This is the kind of Juventus side we need for the Champions League, but we have our feet firmly on the ground,” he told Sky Sport.
Coach Massimiliano Allegri admitted “Higuain made the difference”, but was quick to underline his squad have yet to iron out many of their early-season creases.
“We still have a lot of improvement to make… we conceded far too many shots by Sassuolo,” said the Italian.
“Today we played well offensively, but we’re still looking for the DNA of our defensive game.”
For not the first time since his arrival from Real Madrid, in 2013, Higuain has drawn criticism for starting the season overweight.
Allegri’s decision to only start him from the bench in their opening two games, when he hit the winner in Juve’s opening 2-1 win over Fiorentina, has already been vindicated.
Although yet to start banging goals in with the regularity that earned him a Serie A record with 36 last season, Higuain’s two-goal haul on Saturday suggests he could be on his way to another remarkable season.
He added, defiantly: “I was never really worried, I knew that with some hard work the goals would come.”
Juve’s performance against a Sassuolo side set to make its Europa League debut, at home to Athletic Bilbao on Thursday, was not the only dominant one of the night.
Palermo’s newly-appointed coach Roberto de Zerbi, who replaced Davide Ballardini when he resigned last week, watched from the stands as his side struggled with the pace and creativity of Maurizio Sarri’s visitors.
After escaping with a first-half draw, Palermo crumbled in 14 second-half minutes after Callejon added a brace to Hamsik’s smashing opener.
Napoli, runners-up in Serie A last season thanks mainly to Higuain’s 36-goal tally, return to Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since the 2013/2014 season.
On their last time out, Napoli failed to get out the group stage despite ending their campaign with a 2-0 win over Arsenal at the San Paolo where Higuain, and Callejon, struck.
Fans last season had hoped Higuain would be the talisman to lead their charge back into Europe.
He has since been replaced by Polish international Arkadiusz Milik, who has struck twice so far in the league after joining from Ajax.
Callejon, strangely, is being described as Napoli’s saviour. But on Saturday, Sarri was quick to underline the differences between the pair.
“That’s what I hear being said now and again, but Callejon’s a different kind of player,” said Sarri.
“He’s crucial for us in tactical terms, but you can’t ask Callejon to hit a goal a game for us like Higuain did.” – Agence France-Presse