Turin, April 3 (IANS) Mario Mandzukic headed from close range to give Juventus a 1-0 victory over Empoli that gives their Serie A football title defence another push closer to the line here.
Massimiliano Allegri’s men on Saturday spent the majority of the first half on the attack, Alvaro Morata twice going close before Croatian striker Mandzukic eventually handed the hosts the advantage, nodding in Paul Pogba’s cross just one minute before the break.
The second period was a far quieter affair, however, the next best opportunity falling to Kwadwo Asamoah in added time, who was denied at point-blank range by visiting keeper Lukasz Skorupski, but the Bianconeri successfully guarded their lead to secure a significant win which puts them six points above Napoli, who play away to Udinese on Sunday.
Juventus started the match on the front foot with Morata especially bright, pulling off an audacious backheel from a corner kick, which drifted just wide of the mark.
By the 12th minute, the hosts began to increase their attacking intent further, Stephan Lichtsteiner testing Skorupski with the game’s first shot on target before Mandzukic hit straight at the Polish stopper when played in behind the Empoli rearguard by Pogba’s sublime through ball.
The hosts kept knocking on the door and, in the 23rd minute, they would do the same to Skorupski’s woodwork, when Morata’s curler cannoned off the angle of post and crossbar.
Having survived that scare, Empoli chipped in with a couple of chances of their own, Manuel Pucciarelli sending a stinging drive onto the gloves of Gianluigi Buffon and Massimo Maccarone heading wide from close-range, in what served as a warning sign of their own threat going forwards.
Down the other end of the pitch, Lichtsteiner tested Skorupski a second time from distance and Giorgio Chiellini poked whiskers wide from inside the box.
Needless to say, the Bianconeri had created enough openings to score more than once before the break and they were eventually rewarded for their attacking perseverance in the 44th minute, Mandzukic nodding home Pogba’s cross for his 10th goal of the season in all competitions.
In the second half, Empoli went about frustrating their hosts with long periods of possession and stringing together a number of accurate passes, without however forcing Buffon into any saves.
With the game dropping in tempo, chances on goal were reduced to long-range shots from Pogba and Kwadwo Asamoah either side of Piotr Zielinski’s attempt for the visitors.
As the clock ticked to 88 minutes, there was time nevertheless for a final flurry, as Pogba clipped his shot on the turn just inches wide of the upright before Skorupski produced a spectacular triple save to deny Morata, Asamoah and Simone Zaza, whom he would prevent from scoring again moments later.
Although they were unable to cash in on their forward forays, Juve never looked likely to be punished at the back and they duly held firm for a crucial victory that puts them in good shape ahead of next weekend’s visit to Milan.