Lukaku puts on show in Inter win with two goals, assist
ROME (AP) — Giovanni Di Lorenzo is starting to think about what it will feel like to become the first Napoli captain other than Diego Maradona to raise the Serie A trophy.
A 1-0 win at Juventus on Sunday means Napoli could seal its first Italian league title since Maradona played for the club as soon as next weekend.
“Thinking about it is kind of strange. Being the first captain after the great Maradona to raise it means something inside,” Di Lorenzo said. “It’s going to be an incredible emotion."
A stoppage-time goal from Giacomo Raspadori moved the runaway Italian leader a whopping 17 points ahead of second-place Lazio, which was beaten 1-0 at home by Torino on Saturday.
If Napoli beats regional rival Salernitana at home next Saturday and Inter Milan prevents Lazio from winning at the San Siro a day later, Napoli will have clinched with six rounds to spare.
Maradona led Napoli to its only previous league championships in 1987 and 1990.
Sensing the title nearing, Napoli celebrated wildly after the goal and at the final whistle. The victory was a welcome relief after a recent dip in form that included Napoli being eliminated from the Champions League quarterfinals by AC Milan.
“We celebrated a bit in the locker room, because it moves us closer to our goal and our dream,” Di Lorenzo said.
Raspadori was left unmarked to volley in a cross from Elif Elmas just when Juventus was gaining confidence and threatening at the other end.
“I’m shaking,” Raspadori said. “It is a very important goal but we still have games that need to be won. ... (But) we have only one thing in mind: earning three points against Salernitana."
Napoli didn’t place a single shot on target in the first half, and the Partenopei were fortunate when the referee waved off a late Juventus goal from Angel Di Maria due to an offensive foul on Stanislav Lobotka before a counterattack.
Also, Napoli protested early on when Juventus defender Federico Gatti appeared to take a swipe at Khvicha Kvaratskhelia with his arm but the referee ruled to play on.
Juventus’ 15-point penalty for false accounting was suspended on appeal Thursday — the same day that the Bianconeri advanced to the Europa League semifinals.
Juventus is third, two points behind Lazio.
It marked a season sweep for Napoli against Juventus after routing the Bianconeri 5-1 at home in January, and a third consecutive defeat in the league for Juventus after losing to Lazio and Sassuolo.
Inter has been waiting all season for this version of Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgium striker scored twice and set up the third goal in a 3-0 win at Empoli to end Inter’s five-match winless run in Serie A.
The goals were Lukaku’s first from open play in the Italian league since the opening round of the season in August, having struggled with a hamstring injury during the first half of the season.
The return to form couldn’t have come at a better time for Lukaku, with the second leg of the Italian Cup semifinals coming up against Juventus on Wednesday, followed by the Champions League semifinals against city rival Milan next month.
“I'm getting my confidence back,” Lukaku said. “I’ve always got (to) give my all for this (club), because they gave me a big opportunity to become the player that I am today."
Inter remained sixth, two points behind Milan, which beat visiting Lecce 2-0 with a brace from Rafael Leão.
It’s been a big 24 hours for Lukaku, who had his one-match suspension for the Cup match overturned by the Italian soccer federation on Saturday in what it called a statement against racism.
Lukaku had picked up a second yellow card in the opening leg for provoking Juventus fans by holding his finger to his lips as if to silence the crowd after converting a stoppage-time penalty equalizer. However, Lukaku — who is Black — had been subjected to repeated discriminatory chants.
Empoli beat Inter 1-0 at the San Siro in January and posed a threat in the first half.
Lukaku took over shortly after the break when he traded passes with Marcelo Brozovic before shooting precisely inside the far post. His second was a show of force, as Lukaku took on defender Ardian Ismajl 1-on-1 and fooled his marker with a step over before blasting into the far corner.
Then Lukaku turned provider, setting up Lautaro Martinez to finish off a counterattack – brining back memories of the “LuLa” combination that worked so well when Inter won Serie A in 2020-21.
Having also been key for Milan when the Rossoneri eliminated Napoli in the Champions League quarterfinals, Leão was in the spotlight again against Lecce.
Leão soared above his marker to head in a cross from Sandro Tonali five minutes before the break. Then midway through the second half, he took control in Milan’s own half and surged forward before driving an angled shot through the legs of Lecce defender Federico Baschirotto
With his 11th and 12th goals in the league this season, Leão became only the second Portuguese player to score 10 or more goals in consecutive Serie A seasons after Cristiano Ronaldo did it in three straight seasons for Juventus from 2018-19 to 2020-21.
Milan also had a first-half penalty kick waved off by the VAR after what was initially whistled as a foul by Baschirotto.
Also, Monza came from two goals down to beat Fiorentina 3-2 with Matteo Pessina converting a penalty for the winner; and Udinese beat struggling Cremonese 3-0.
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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