Juventus marked Antonio Conte’s return to touchline duty with a 1-0 victory against Palermo at Stadio Renzo Barbera to open up a five-point gap at the top of Serie A.
The hosts had the better of the opening exchanges with ex-Juve striker Fabrizio Miccoli having a goal disallowed for offside before the men from Turin began to get a foothold in the game.
Mirko Vucinic and then Alessandro Matri passed up gilt-edged opportunities to give the Bianconeri a half-time advantage but the former made amends when he set up the winner for Stephan Lichtsteiner five minutes into the second-half.
Palermo’s plight was made all the more difficult with the second-half dismissal of Michel Morganella and Juventus held on to open up a five-point gap over Napoli, who face third-placed Inter in the late game.
The defeat means Palermo are just outside the relegation places on goal difference.
Massimo Carrera’s steady hand in the absence of Conte on the touchline has seen the Bianconeri qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League as group winners and set the pace in Serie A but the return of Conte was much welcomed for what could be a season-defining couple of weeks.
Ex-Juve striker Miccoli led the line for Gian Piero Gasperini’s men, who, during the opening exchanges, dealt with the difficult conditions well to manufacture the better of the openings, although the visitors came into the match as the half progressed.
Miccoli expertly volleyed a clipped ball by Edgar Barreto past Gianluigi Buffon from the acutest of angles only to have his celebrations cut short by the assistant referee’s flag, before the enduring class of Andrea Pirlo began to turn the game in the favour of the reigning champions.
However, for all their dominance of the latter stages of the first half, the men from Turin went to the interval on parity following gilt-edged misses from first Vucinic and then Matri.
Albeit off balance, Vucinic contrived to turn a saved Claudio Marchisio volley wide of the goal from inside the six-yard box before his strike partner fired straight at Samir Ujkani following good work from Arturo Vidal down the right.
The weather worsened at half-time with a hailstorm delaying the restart, but it did nothing to the visiting side’s focus as they almost immediately took the lead in the opening minute - Vucinic’s effort brushed the foot of the post from the edge of the box, though.
The Montenegrin was not to be denied, though, and played a crucial role in the goal with 50 minutes gone. He expertly rose to take a Pirlo ball on the chest with Steve von Bergen in close attention before releasing Lichtsteiner to fire past Ujkani to give the visitors a lead they were not to relinquish.
The half-time deluge did little for the game as a spectacle and the forward trio of Franco Brienza – a second-half substitute - Josip Ilicic and Miccoli struggled to express their running game with the pitch almost unbearably heavy.
Morganella’s pointless dismissal for a second yellow effectively ended the game as a contest but Gasperini elected to play a higher defensive line in search of a response - which the Bianconeri exploited to create two clear-cut chances as the game drew to a close.
First, Vucinic found Leonardo Bonucci in unfamiliar territory but having tried – and failed - to round Ujkani he fell in a heap only to receive a yellow card for diving, before Vucinic fired straight at the keeper in a one-on-one situation.
The win gives Juventus a five-point advantage at the top of the table, which increases the significance of the evening kick-off when Napoli travel to Inter - where a draw would make it an almost perfect return for Conte.