ITALY: Gonzalo Higuain hit his second brace in as many games as Paulo Dybala-inspired Juventus warmed up for their midweek Champions League clash against Barcelona with a shaky 2-0 win over Chievo on Saturday.
Juve’s 25th win of the campaign took the Turin giants, chasing a record sixth consecutive scudetto, nine points clear of Roma, who face Bologna on Sunday looking to tighten their grip on second spot.
Juve are also set to meet Lazio in the Italian Cup final after a 5-4 semi-final aggregate win over Napoli in midweek, when Argentina striker Higuain scored twice in a 3-2 second leg loss at the San Paolo stadium.
But despite seeing Dybala deliver an inspiring performance against a dogged ‘Flying Donkeys’ side, coach Massimiliano Allegri will be expecting improvements on Tuesday when Juve host Barcelona in a quarter-final first leg, for the first time since losing the 2015 final to the La Liga giants in Berlin.
Gianluigi Buffon’s 616th appearance in Serie A meant the Juve ‘keeper overtook retired Inter Milan great Javier Zanetti (615), although he remains behind Paolo Maldini’s impressive tally of 647 games.
Although he had little to do in a first half that saw Higuain fire past Andrea Seculin from Dybala’s smart cutback on 23 minutes, Chievo kept Juve running throughout.
Juve were quick off the mark, but spurned several occasions in a one-sided opening half, Seculin blocking a snapshot from Sami Khedira before finger-tipping a powerful Dybala strike out from under the bar after the Argentine playmaker pounced on a misplaced pass.
Minutes later, Dybala turned provider, skipping past Ivan Radovanovic and cutting back for Higuain to sweep a right-footed first-timer inside the far post.
But Juve were wasteful again, Khedira skewing wide from Juan Cuadrado’s cross and then Bostjan Cesar coming in to block Cuadrado’s drive from a great Dybala ball.
Buffon made his first real save shortly after the restart, the ‘keeper forced down low at his near post to beat away a Sergio Pellissier effort.
Juve were soon back in control, but still hitting wide of the target.
With his back to goal, Higuain spun to volley inches wide from the edge of the box, and Juve were lucky when, at the other end, Roberto Inglese rose to nod Valter Birsa’s cross just over Buffon’s crossbar.
A great exchange between Khedira and Dybala saw the Argentine playmaker skew narrowly wide of the far post.
Dybala hung his head in frustration, and Higuain followed suit with a similar gesture when he fired wide of the upright from 10 yards out after pouncing on a ball fired back into the area.
Buffon was alert to a Birsa strike from the edge of the area, but was finally celebrating when Higuain calmed nerves with his second of the game in the final minutes.
After Dybala’s smart dribble into the box, Stephan Lichtsteiner was left to deliver a powerful cross across goal that Higuain controlled before firing past the wrong-footed Seculin.