Milan, Juve grind out victories

TIGHT AT THE TOP::Udinese remain in touch as they got off to a perfect start when Antonio Di Natale scored against Cesena with less than a minute on the clock

AP, MILAN, ITALY

Tue, Jan 10, 2012 - Page 18

Joint Serie A leaders AC Milan and Juventus seemed to be suffering from post-Christmas hangovers as they struggled to grind out wins against Atalanta BC and Lecce on Sunday.

In Bergamo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic converted from the spot after Milan were awarded a dubious penalty in the 22nd minute and Kevin-Prince Boateng sealed the result eight minutes from time.

Milan were made to sweat before Boateng’s goal, with the league’s top scorer German Denis hitting the post for Atalanta. The Serie A champions will need to step up a gear ahead of next weekend’s mouthwatering derby against a rejuvenated Inter.

Massimiliano Allegri’s side are level on 37 points with Juventus, who ground out a 1-0 win at rock-bottom Lecce, courtesy of substitute Alessandro Matri’s 27th-minute header.

Udinese are two points further back after a 4-1 victory over 10-man Cesena.

Milan took the lead when Alexandre Pato took a tumble in the box amid a crowd of players and the referee pointed to the spot. Ibrahimovic, who had scored all five of his previous penalties this season, duly converted his sixth with a low shot into the left corner.

Milan sealed the match when Ibrahimovic threaded a ball through to Boateng, who lashed in an effort under the crossbar.

“It was a difficult game, but we knew Atlanta play good football and are a spirited side,” Allegri said. “They created a lot of problems for us, but they are three important points, it’s never easy to win here. We’re better physically than I would have thought and we did well to deal with the difficulty of the game. We’ve got a very important derby on Sunday, we’re doing great things and Inter are as well now.”

Juventus striker Matri had only come off the bench four minutes earlier, but he was on hand to head home the only goal of the game after Lecce goalkeeper Massimiliano Benassi parried Mirko Vucinic’s shot.

“I said before the game that everything is uncertain immediately after the winter break, especially for a team like Juve, who are still unbeaten,” Juventus coach Antonio Conte said. “If you don’t prepare yourself adequately, you can have somewhat of a false start. I’m pleased with the three points, although there remains a bit of disappointment that we didn’t manage to close the game earlier. We suffered in certain parts, but the defense reacted well. We deserved to win, even without that good a performance.”

Unsung Udinese remain in touch with the leaders.

They got off to a perfect start when striker Antonio Di Natale opened the scoring with less than a minute on the clock.

Kwadwo Asamoah restored their lead in the second half after Eder leveled six minutes before the break and Cesena’s hopes of getting back into the game evaporated on the hour-mark when Maurizio Lauro was handed a second yellow card and dismissed.

Dusan Basta extended Udinese’s lead in stunning fashion, with a perfect lobbed shot into the far corner from the edge of the area, and Di Natale scored his 12th goal of the season shortly afterwards to seal the result.

Edinson Cavani scored against his former club to help Napoli to a 3-1 win at Palermo.

Goran Pandev opened the scoring in the 35th minute and Cavani pounced 10 minutes after the interval. The Argentine, who spent three years at Palermo before joining Napoli in 2010, did not celebrate his fantastic curling effort, although he was rewarded with applause from the home fans.

Marek Hamsik added the third five minutes later. Fabrizio Miccoli grabbed a consolation for Palermo three minutes from time.

Bologna are now six points clear of the drop zone after beating 10-man Catania 2-0.

Nicolo Cherubin scored five minutes into the second half and captain Marco Di Vaio doubled Bologna’s lead in stoppage-time. Catania captain Marco Biagianti was dismissed in the 77th minute for a second yellow card.

Pasquale Marino replaced Alberto Malesani on the Genoa bench at the start of the break, but his side got off to a dreadful start, losing 3-0 at Cagliari.

Joaquin Larrivey fired Cagliari in front in the 13th minute from the spot and Victor Ibarbo doubled their lead after the break, before Genoa fell apart as defender Emiliano Moretti was dismissed in the 66th minute and Andreas Granqvist turned the ball into his own net six minutes later.

Elsewhere, AS Roma captain Francesco Totti scored two penalties to help his side to a 2-0 win over Chievo Verona and Stevan Jovetic also scored twice — including once from the spot — as Fiorentina beat struggling Novara Calcio 3-0.

Riccardo Montolivo grabbed the Tuscan side’s other goal.