Inter keep pressure on
THE vital knack of winning matches without striking top form is establishing Roy Hodgson's Inter Milan as genuine contenders for this season's Italian league title.
Gianluca Pagliuca kept Inter in their match with Napoli yesterday thanks to a string of superb saves, allowing his side to sneak a 2-1 win with opportunist goals from Marco Branca and Youri Djorkaeff.
Branca's snap shot in the 43rd minute surprised goalkeeper Giuseppe Taglialatela and, two minutes from time, French playmaker Djorkaeff settled the issue by turning his marker and beating the hapless Taglialatela in one smooth movement.
Victory gives Inter 28 points from 16 matches, just two adrift of league leaders Juventus, held 0-0 at Atalanta. The European champions led by six at the start of the year.
Sampdoria joined Inter on 28 points, but lie second on goal difference, after a 4-1 home win against Cagliari last night.
Significantly, it was the third time in successive away matches that Inter have taken points from a game they might have lost and coach Hodgson, who earlier this week accused Italian players of unsportsmanlike behaviour, admitted: "We were lucky."
To add to the visitor's good fortune, Napoli's Brazilian midfielder Beto was sent off for two deliberate handballs. Napoli pulled a late goal back through Nicola Caccia - a brilliant overhead effort - but it was not enough to protect a run which had seen them win their last four successive home matches.
Juventus dominated the first half against Atalanta and goalkeeper Davide Pinato twice denied Alessandro Del Piero.
But after the break, the visitors, fresh from three consecutive wins, ventured forward and, in the 52nd minute, Gianluigi Lentini, signed, from Milan last summer, showed why he was once the most expensive player in the world. Lentini made a 40-metre run down the right before hitting the post with a searing shot.
To add to Juve's goalscoring problems, their main target man Alen Boksic hobbled off midway through the first half with a leg injury and will miss next Wednesday's European Supercup final first leg with Paris St Germain.
Early season pacemakers Vicenza dropped to fourth on 26 points losing 1-0 to crisis hit Milan, the side they eliminated from the Italian Cup earlier this season.
Arrigo Sacchi left Dejan Savicevic and Roberto Baggio on the bench preferring to play Christope Dugarry as a lone striker and in the 19th minute, the Frenchman repaid his manager by heading home Marco Simone's cross.
After the break, the champions lost midfielder Marcel Desailly to his second bookable offence and were forced to fight a rearguard action for their first win in three matches.
In the 88th and 90th minute, Roberto Murgita and Maurizio Rossi twice had the ball in the Milan net but both goals were disallowed for off side.
Milan now lie seventh on 24 points, level with Parma who followed up successive wins over Arrigo Sacchi's side and Juventus with a fortuitous win at Bologna.
The home side, now without a win in seven matches, hit the woodwork twice before Pietro Strada slalomed through the Bologna defence to score the visitor's winner.
Parma's old manager Nevio Scala made a disastrous debut on the Perugia bench at the Olympic stadium, watching his new side crash to a 4-1 defeat to Roma. Argentine Abel Balbo scored twice to join Atalanta Filippo Inzaghi on 11 goals as top scorer in serie A.
In Spain, Real Madrid threw away an opportunity to extend their lead at the top of the first division when they were held to a goalless draw at bottom placed Extremadura yesterday.
The result leaves Real three points ahead of Barcelona, who need to win tonight's game with Hercules to take over at the top on goal difference. Third placed Deportivo lost ground by drawing 1-1 at Valladolid, but champions Atletico Madrid hit their best form to demolish Zaragoza 5-1.
There were chances for both sides in an exciting first half at Extremadura, but Real ran out of ideas after the substitution of Croatian striker Davor Suker, and in the final minutes were only saved from defeat by fine work by German goalkeeper Bodo Illgner.
The match was played in a highly charged atmosphere in the small rural town of Almendralejo where fans had gathered to burn copies of a Spanish sports newspaper they felt had insulted their team and town. "The result demonstrates there are no small rivals," said Real president Lorenzo Sanz.