Dries Mertens hit two as Napoli reclaimed top spot in Serie A with a 3-1 win over Bologna on Sunday  while AC Milan rekindled their European push with a 2-1 win over Lazio.

Napoli restored their one-point advantage over champions Juventus who had beaten nine-man Chievo 2-0 on Saturday with goals by Sami Khedira and Gonzalo Higuain.

The game in Naples proved to be a battle with Rodrigo Palacio nodding Bologna ahead after 25 seconds before an Ibrahima Mbaye own goal four minutes later pulled the hosts back at their Stadio San Paolo.

Mertens edged Napoli ahead on 37 minutes with a penalty awarded for a foul on Jose Callejon. The Belgian then claimed his 13th goal of the season with a spectacular curling effort on 59 minutes.

“The team showed character. It wasn’t easy to pick ourselves off the ground today,” said Mertens who netted his third goal in a week.

Maurizio Sarri’s side have 57 points from 22 games, one more than Juventus. 

“We cannot compare ourselves to Juventus,” said Sarri. “They are clearly superior in every way. Juve win 90 per cent of their matches.”

“Our aim is to play beautifully. We like playing good football, enjoying ourselves and entertaining.”

Inter Milan missed a chance to move third with a frustrating 1-1 draw at promoted SPAL.

Inter remain fourth, two points behind Lazio who stay third despite losing to AC Milan in the San Siro. Roma are just three points behind Inter in fifth before playing at Sampdoria. Milan moved seventh after winning a third consecutive game for the first time this season. 

There was controversy over Milan’s opening goal after 15 minutes with Patrick Cutrone touching the ball with his arm as he headed in. Giacomo Bonaventura headed Milan’s second before the break after Adam Marusic had equalised for the Romans.

“It’s incredible. A free kick deflected in by an arm,” complained Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi after his side’s first loss in nearly two months.

Milan and Lazio meet again in Italian Cup semi-final action midweek.

– ‘Bitter taste’ –

Earlier Alberto Paloschi headed in a last-gasp equaliser to grab a precious point for SPAL after Inter had taken the lead on 48 minutes when defender Francesco Vicari turned the ball into his own net.

“When you concede a goal like that in stoppage time, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth,” said Inter coach Luciano Spalletti after his side who had been unbeaten until December 16, notched up a seventh consecutive game without a win.

Despite trailing for most of the second half, SPAL proved dogged and their pressing paid off when former Milan forward Paloschi turned in a Mirco Antenucci cross on the stroke of full-time.

Spalletti introduced on-loan Barcelona midfielder Rafinha for the final minutes of the game but the Brazilian failed to lift his team against a SPAL side still in the relegation zone.

Struggling Verona shocked Fiorentina 4-1 in Tuscany to end a run of four consecutive defeats, as Udinese moved up to eighth with a 1-0 win at Genoa despite Samir’s sending off with a second half goal from Valon Behrami sealing the three points.

Crotone and Cagliari drew 1-1 in a relegation battle overshadowed by a video assistant referee (VAR) controversy.

Crotone were awarded a soft penalty and Fabio Pisacane received a straight red card for a high tackle, with a late Federico Ceccherini goal ruled offside using VAR.

“Perhaps the VAR monitor was bent… Perhaps the referee was confused as to who was defending and who was attacking. I have to laugh, because if anyone was offside it was the team with the white jerseys, except they were the ones defending!” said Crotone coach Walter Zenga.

Torino thrashed bottom team Benevento 3-0, with Vid Belec sent off for kicking out at Senegalese forward M’Baye Niang. –   Agence France-Presse

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