Napoli, 7 points back, still has sights on title

ANDREW DAMPF AP Sports Writer Published:

ROME (AP) -- If the first matches after the holiday break were any indication, Napoli will be Juventus' top challenger in the second half of the Serie A season.

Edinson Cavani scored a hat trick in Napoli's 4-1 win over Roma last weekend to move the southern club within seven points of the Italian league leaders, who were beaten 2-1 at home by 10-man Sampdoria.

This weekend, Napoli stays at home to face Palermo, which is in the relegation zone, while Juventus visits eighth-place Parma.

Juventus leads Lazio by five points and third-place Napoli by seven. Inter Milan and Fiorentina are each nine points behind.

Napoli would be tied with Lazio if not for a two-point penalty it received for match-fixing after its former goalkeeper confessed to arranging the result of a game three seasons ago.

Napoli is hoping to get back at least one of those points in appeal.

"This is a great group and it's never satisfied, so we're going to try and win every match," Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri said. "We're taking it day by day then we'll see what happens at the end."

Against Roma, Cavani scored first with his right foot, then with his left before also connecting on a header. The Uruguay striker has 16 goals this season, two more than Stephen El Shaarawy of AC Milan to top the league scoring chart.

For his performance, Cavani was voted atop this week's AP Global Football rankings.

While Cavani has been on form all season, Napoli is still looking to replace Ezequiel Lavezzi, who transferred to Paris Saint-Germain before this season.

Mario Balotelli, who continues to clash with Roberto Mancini at Manchester City, could be an option.

Napoli attempted to sign Balotelli when he left Inter three years ago. Mazzarri met the Italy forward then.

"He made a good impression, although only those people that see him every day can know what kind of problems he can create," Mazzarri said. "But I've got a decent amount of experience and it would be stimulating to coach him."

Previously with Sampdoria, Mazzarri played an important role in resurrecting the career of another troubled Italy forward, Antonio Cassano.

"If you want to reach a certain level, the more quality players you have in attack the better off you are," Mazzarri said.

However, Mazzarri's contract is up at the end of this season, and he has indicated he would like to take a sabbatical after struggling with heart problems and stress recently.

As for Juventus, a 2-1 extra-time win over AC Milan in the Italian Cup quarterfinals Wednesday provided relief after the loss to Sampdoria.

"It was a great response from everyone, a really strong response," Juventus coach Antonio Conte said. "A loss like that should never happen again. We did well to move on, even though we were playing against Milan."

Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was rested against Milan after taking responsibility for Samp's first goal. He should return at Parma, where he began his career.

Meanwhile, Lazio is also in form, having beat Cagliari 2-1 last weekend and Catania 3-0 Tuesday to also reach the semifinals in the cup competition. The Roman club now hosts Atalanta.

Also this weekend, Inter faces a Pescara squad that just became the first team to win at Fiorentina this season, and Fiorentina visits Udinese, which shut out Inter 3-0 last weekend.

Inter has problems in defense with Andrea Ranocchia and Juan Jesus each suspended, plus Walter Samuel hurting with an Achilles tendon problem. Midfielder Esteban Cambiasso could be used in defense again.

Milan, 14 points behind in seventh, visits Sampdoria, which has been touting the talents of Mauro Icardi, the 19-year-old Argentina striker who scored twice against Juventus.

On Wednesday, Milan purchased half of Italy under-21 midfielder Riccardo Saponara's contract.

"You need to be patient and teach the right concepts, then in a few years with these young players the squad will be ready to win again," Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri said.