Serie A suspense maintained as 'exceptional' Dzeko fires Roma

Angus MACKINNON
1 / 2
Roma's Bosnian forward Edin Dzeko (L) celebrates with teammate Mohamed Salah after scoring a goal against Empoli on April 1, 2017 at Rome's Olympic stadium

Roma boss Luciano Spalletti hailed revitalised striker Edin Dzeko as "exceptional" after the Bosnian kept his club's title challenge alive with a record-breaking double on Saturday.

The former Manchester City forward, who struggled initially to make an impact in Italy, fired Roma to a 2-0 win over lowly Empoli that maintains the tension in the Serie A title race on a potentially decisive weekend.

The brace took Dzeko's tally for the season to 33 goals in all competitions - eclipsing the previous club record jointly held by veteran captain Francesco Totti and two other Roma legends.

His two goals, typical close-range poachers' efforts either side of the interval, clinched a comfortable win against an Empoli side with the poorest strike rate of any club in the Italian top flight.

The three points lifted Roma to within five of leaders Juventus, 24 hours before the champions travel to third-placed Napoli for star striker Gonzalo Higuain's first return to his former club.

"Dzeko was exceptional tonight as he has been most of the season," Spalletti said.

"He is a very strong player, of the kind we have always looked for. Before there was only Totti, now we also have him who can deliver these kind of numbers."

A victory in Sunday's highly-charged encounter in Naples will leave Juve looking like very short-odds favourites to go on and clinch their sixth consecutive Scudetto.

But Spalletti is refusing to throw in the towel. "Until it is no longer mathematically possible, we will try to keep looking forward - we have an ambitious squad that needs something to aim for."

- Inzaghi tactical coup -

Dzeko's goals saw him pass Totti's best return, in the 2006-07 season, as well as the totals registered by Rodolfo Volk in 1930-31 and Argentine striker Pedro Manfredini in 1960-61.

The 31-year-old has scored 23 league goals, eight in the Europa League and two in the Italian Cup.

Lazio had earlier boosted their hopes of Champions League football next season by coming from behind to snatch a 2-1 win at struggling Sassuolo that leaves them fourth, three points adrift of Napoli, who currently occupy Italy's final qualifying spot for Europe's elite competition.

A late own goal by Sassuolo defender Francesco Acerbi gave Simone Inzaghi's side all three points after Ciro Immobile's 18th league goal of the season cancelled out Domenico Berardi's penalty opener for the home side.

The win was a tactical coup for Inzaghi with all three of his substitutes having a role in the move that led to the 83rd-minute winner in the first of three matches in eight days that could define the Roman club's season.

On Tuesday, Inzaghi's men will defend a 2-0 first-leg advantage in their Italian Cup semi-final clash with local rivals Roma before hosting Napoli at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday.

"It is a very important win against a very well organised side," Inzaghi said. "It is not easy for anyone to win here."

The Lazio boss denied that he would be cheering on Juventus on Sunday given how a win for the Turin giants could help his club's cause.

"I don't pay much attention to the others," he said. "On Tuesday we have the match with Roma, which will be very important, and on Wednesday I will start thinking about Napoli next weekend. Now I am only thinking about Roma."