Napoli 4 Udinese 2: Scudetto race alive ahead of tantalising Turin trip
Napoli twice came from behind to register a vital 4-2 home win over struggling Udinese that moved them closer to Serie A leaders Juventus ahead of Sunday's crunch clash in Turin.
Maurizio Sarri's men confidently responded to the sight of their title bid slipping away by piling on three goals in the space of 11 second-half minutes, taking full advantage of Juve's surprise 1-1 draw at Crotone.
Raul Albiol cancelled out a Svante Ingelsson strike that had put the struggling visitors ahead for a second time, before Arkadiusz Milik - starting in place of Dries Mertens - and Lorenzo Tonelli combined to ease the nerves which had mounted over an underwhelming opening hour.
The Partenopei had earlier been fortunate to reach the interval with scores level, Lorenzo Insigne striking in the second minute of added time to cancel out Jakub Jankto's 41st-minute opener.
It was far from a straightforward night from there, but the 57th-minute introduction of Mertens sparked the barrage that means Sarri's side are now back to within four points of the champions, a deficit they can further reduce in a pivotal encounter at Allianz Stadium.
Udinese almost set up a grandstand finish with just over five minutes remaining, but Stipe Perica headed against the crossbar as their Serie A losing streak stretched to 10 matches, Napoli's instead banking what they hope will be the first of two victories over teams wearing black and white in the space of five days.
— Official SSC Napoli (@en_sscnapoli) April 18, 2018
Napoli should have been ahead in the 10th minute, as Piotr Zielinski escaped down the right and squared invitingly for Insigne, but Albano Bizzarri read the scuffed finish and confidently palmed clear.
It was one of several early occasions in which Napoli pushed forward to promising effect, with Bizzarri earlier keeping out a swerving Marek Hamsik shot.
A collision between Udinese defender Samir and his goalkeeper, along with a brave block from Bram Nuytinck, summed up the visitors' desperation to avoid a deficit at any cost.
And, having seen off those early scares, their perseverance paid off with a shock opener in the 41st minute, Jankto turning home at close-range after Albiol's hesitation allowed Francesco Zampano's pass to squirm across the face of goal.
But the joy would only be fleeting as Insigne helped Sarri breathe a sigh of relief in first-half stoppage time. The Italy international this time perfectly seized upon Zielinski's ball inside, taking Nuytinck out of the equation with a fine first touch before he rolled a cool finish into the bottom-right corner from just inside the box.
There was still time in the first half for Pepe Reina to spare Napoli from a second deficit when he backpedalled to tip over a dipping Jankto header.
The second period seemed to follow the script of the half with Hamsik first at fault for side-footing Insigne's cut-back wide of the far post.
Just as they had earlier, Napoli once again paid the price for profligacy in the 55th minute, Ingelsson restoring Udinese's lead with an expert volley into the bottom-left corner from Zampano's delightful right-sided cross.
The home side needed nine minutes to wipe out the advantage this time around as Albiol, in contrast to his earlier defensive indecision, rose well and met Jose Callejon's corner to powerfully head home despite Bizzarri's best efforts.
2 - Raul Albiol has scored two goals in his last four Serie A appearances, as many as in his previous 151. Draw. #NapoliUdinese
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) April 18, 2018
Mertens had been thrown on prior to the equaliser and though his presence gave Napoli verve every time they pushed forward, it was his replacement at the point of attack that buried the all-important third.
It could hardly have been easier for Milik to score his third and arguably most important goal of the Serie A season, with Bizzarri's parry from Callejon's initial strike falling kindly for a point-blank finish.
And, following that 70th-minute strike, the onslaught was capped when Tonelli joined fellow defender Albiol on the scoresheet with an equally commanding header from a Callejon corner, sealing a crucial triumph just as news of Crotone's equaliser against Juve filtered through.