On Friday night it was first against second, as Juventus took on Napoli. On Saturday night it was third against fourth, as Lazio sought to defend their Champions League berth against an in-form Milan. On Sunday afternoon it was fifth against seventh, Inter travelling to Catania in the knowledge that their opponents could leapfrog them with a victory.
This was a weekend, in other words, which promised footballing fireworks. It began with a more literal kind of explosive being deployed outside Juventus's team hotel. More than a hundred Napoli Ultras took up residence in Corso Vittorio Emanuele on Thursday evening, setting off firecrackers, paper bombs and klaxons outside the Grand Hotel Parker's in the hope of disrupting their opponents' rest. The disturbances continued through the night and into the early hours of Friday morning.
Juventus stayed holed up until Friday afternoon – conducting their pre-game training session in the hotel gym. When the team's bus finally emerged from the parking lot a few hours before kick-off, it became an instant target. Despite the presence of a police escort, a group of would-be assailants tracked it from hotel to stadium on motorbikes and mopeds, launching missiles and insults as they went. At one point a lit flare ricocheted off a window and landed on the roof of a nearby taxi.
Worse was to come as the bus approached the Stadio San Paolo, where another gang awaited with rocks in hand. The window next to Kwadwo Asamoah was smashed, though the player was not hurt. Juventus's general manager, Beppe Marotta, later confirmed that the incident was unrelated to Asamoah's exclusion from the starting XI.
If Juventus were intimidated by such acts, then their players did not show it once the game began. After just 10 minutes they took the lead – Giorgio Chiellini beating Morgan De Sanctis with a powerful header from the right. Nine minutes later Mirko Vucinic wasted a golden opportunity to extend the advantage, failing to beat the goalkeeper when clean through on goal.
The Bianconeri dominated the first half, yet failed to maintain their advantage. Gokhan Inler equalised for Napoli two minutes before the break, his ferocious drive from 20 yards deflecting off a defender on its way past Gigi Buffon.
There would be no further goals, though Napoli improved significantly after the break. Their manager, Walter Mazzarri, changed tack during the interval – replacing Miguel Britos with Blerim Dzemaili and rearranging his team from a 3-4-1-2 into a 4-3-1-2. By packing the centre of midfield Napoli were able to neutralise the hitherto dominant Andrea Pirlo. Mazzarri's team created the better second-half chances, but failed to convert them.
Edinson Cavani came as close as anyone to breaking the deadlock, directing a 73rd-minute header on target but a little too close to Buffon. The Napoli striker was lucky to still be on the pitch. In first-half injury-time he had delivered an elbow to the side of Chiellini's skull, lashing out in retaliation after the defender yanked his hair at a corner.
Chiellini's misdemeanour had gone unnoticed by the officials, but Cavani's was spotted by the goalline official Andrea De Marco. Surprisingly, he advised the referee Daniele Orsato to show only a yellow card.
If Juventus felt aggrieved at that decision, then their players and manager offered few complaints at full-time. Antonio Conte joked that Chiellini had been "checking to see if Cavani had any gel in his hair". The defender shook hands and swapped shirts with his opponent at the final whistle, before telling reporters: "There are no problems between us."
"Us players are supposed to dish it out for 90 minutes," said Chiellini. "It's up to the referee to decide what is and isn't a foul. Then, once the game ends, it should all finish right there and then. Going up against a great champion like Cavani, giving each other hell for 90 minutes, then being able to walk off as opponents who respect one another is the beauty of sport."
Chiellini had every reason to walk away happy, the match representing just his second appearance of 2013. Sidelined by injury since the end of last year, he had attempted a comeback against Siena last month only to pick up a fresh injury to his right ankle. He confessed that the joint "hurt like mad" on Friday night, but any discomfort was more than offset by his satisfaction at having both scored and prevented Cavani from doing so.
The draw also served Juventus far better than it did Napoli – not only preserving the champions' six-point lead at the top of Serie A, but effectively extending it, since head-to-head results are used as the first tie-breaker when teams finish level. Juventus beat Napoli 2-0 in the corresponding fixture in Turin last November.
If it is too early to declare the title race over, then Cavani's recent struggles might provide Juve with another source of encouragement. The Uruguayan – Napoli's leading scorer with 18 goals – has not found the net in seven games across all competitions. His team have won just once in that time.
Napoli might not have given up on the scudetto just yet, but in the meantime Milan have been quietly closing in on second place. An impressive 3-0 rout of Lazio not only moved the Rossoneri back up to third, it also closed the gap on Napoli to five points.
Such a lopsided victory must be viewed in the context of Antonio Candreva's early sending off. Lazio played with 10 men for almost 75 minutes after their midfielder was dismissed for denying Stephan El Shaarawy a clear scoring opportunity.
Even without that one-man advantage, though, this Milan team might have proved irresistible. Saturday's victory was their seventh in a row at San Siro, and the Rossoneri are in the best form of any team in the league, collecting 34 points over their last 15 games. Juventus have 28, and Napoli one fewer than that, over the same period.
Inter, by contrast, have managed just 19, yet anyone who watched the Nerazzurri this weekend might think twice before discounting them altogether. Just when it seemed Andrea Stramaccioni's side might be coming apart at the seams, they produced one of the most remarkable comebacks of the season.
The build-up to Sunday's game against Catania had been less than ideal, with reports of Stramaccioni and Antonio Cassano almost coming to blows at the training ground. The pair squared up in the changing rooms after Cassano had sarcastically likened Stramaccioni to José Mourinho, but were separated before any punches got thrown.
Cassano was subsequently dropped from Inter's travelling squad for the game, though Stramaccioni denied that the player had been suspended. "If Cassano was banned he would not have trained with us this morning and he would not be back with us on Monday," insisted the manager. It was a claim about as credible as his assertions last year that Wesley Sneijder was being excluded from the side purely on tactical grounds.
Against that unsettled backdrop, Inter started their game about as poorly as it was possible to do. The collapse of John Carew's mooted move during the week had been utterly predictable – the player showing up in Milan unfit and out-of-practice after nearly a year away from the game – yet the shortcomings which caused the team to consider such a move remained unresolved. Inter still did not possess an adequate back-up for Diego Milito up front.
The player nominally signed as Milito's reserve, Tommaso Rocchi, was finally given his first start on Sunday, but Stramaccioni swiftly regretted the decision. Inter fell 2-0 behind within 20 minutes and by half-time were fortunate not to be further behind. Rocchi was hardly the only player underperforming, yet he had made no real impact.
Not that Inter's struggles came as any great surprise. Back in 1961, when Catania ended Inter's scudetto hopes with a 2-0 victory in Sicily, the result was sufficiently shocking for the radio commentator Sandro Ciotti to famously exclaim: "Clamoroso al Cibali" – "Sensation at the Cibali [Stadium]". But as Gazzetta dello Sport noted last week, "The only sensation at the Cibali [these days] is if Catania don't win".
Rolando Maran's side had lost just twice all season at home – against Juventus and Milan – and the former result arrived in highly contentious circumstances. Inter, having collected just one point on the road since their win at Juventus last November, came into this fixture as underdogs. Their shambolic first-half performance was in line with many people's expectations.
Their second-half resurgence was not. Stramaccioni made a pair of changes at half-time, replacing Zdravko Kuzmanovic and Rocchi with Dejan Stankovic and Rodrigo Palacio. Within seven minutes the latter had laid on the first goal, crossing from the right for Ricardo Álvarez to head home. After scoring the equaliser himself, Palacio also scored the winner in injury-time. So dominant had Inter been in the second half that they could easily have won by more.
At full-time the critics asked why, for the second week running, Stramaccioni was only able to get his team selection right after the game was already in progress. Inter's fans simply celebrated a result which keeps them within one point of Milan. On present form, overhauling them seems improbable. But then so did a comeback from two goals down away to a team such as Catania.
• Francesco Totti scored his 225th Serie A goal, converting a 16th-minute penalty against Genoa to move level with Gunnar Nordahl as the second-highest goalscorer in league history. The Roma forward still needs another 49 to catch Silvio Piola in first place – though at this stage you still wouldn't bet against him hanging around long enough to make that happen. On Sunday Totti not only scored Roma's opener but also provided the assist for their subsequent two goals. The first of those was converted by the 18-year-old Alessio Romagnoli – a man who wasn't even born when Totti made his debut for the club.
• Antonio Di Natale scored his 150th goal for Udinese in their 1-0 win over Pescara. At 35, the odds on him catching Totti or Piola are pretty long, but Di Natale (who can count a further 18 Serie A goals from his time at Empoli towards his overall total) needs 16 more to make it into the all-time top 10.
• Di Natale's goal helped seal the fate of the Pescara manager Cristiano Bergodi – fired after collecting just one point from his eight games in charge. The youth-team coach Christian Bucchi is expected to take over, though he will require someone alongside him on the bench as he does not yet have all the required coaching badges.
• Only one other Serie A team can match Milan's points tally (14) over the last six games. That team is not Juventus, Napoli, Lazio or Inter, but rather Sampdoria – whose modest 1-0 victory over Parma also improves their goal difference over that spell to a remarkable plus 11. Their lone goal on Sunday came from Mauro Icardi, who – with eight goals since the start of January – is the division's top scorer this calendar year.
• The Cagliari owner Massimo Cellino was released from prison on Saturday – against his wishes – and instead placed under house arrest. Cellino, charged with embezzlement and false representation relating to the construction of his team's new IS Arenas stadium, had initially refused to leave prison on the grounds that he did not want to leave until his name had been cleared. He maintains his innocence of all wrongdoing. One or two of the team's fans had jokingly campaigned for Cellino to stay in prison, too – not because they thought him guilty, but because since his arrest the team had recorded back-to-back wins against Pescara and Torino. The day after he was released, they lost 3-0 to Bologna.
Results: Bologna 3-0 Cagliari, Catania 2-3 Inter, Fiorentina 2-1 Chievo, Milan 3-0 Lazio, Napoli 1-1 Juventus, Pescara 0-1 Udinese, Roma 3-1 Genoa, Sampdoria 1-0 Parma, Siena 0-2 Atalanta, Torino 0-0 Palermo.