Milan, Jan 9: 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 and Lecce on Sunday.
In Bergamo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic converted from the spot after Milan was awarded a dubious penalty in the 22nd minute and Kevin Prince Boateng sealed the result eight minutes from time.
Milan was 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 Milan.
Massimiliano Allegri's side is level on 37 points with Juventus, which ground out a 1-0 win at rock-bottom Lecce, courtesy of substitute Alessandro Matri's 27th minute header.
Udinese is 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 had scored all five of his previous penalties this season and he converted number six with a low shot into the left corner.
And 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 is 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 is 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 which is 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. It got off to a perfect start when Antonio Di Natale opened the scoring with less than a minute on the clock.
Kwadwo Asamoah restored its 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 afterward 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 Argentinian, who spent three years at Palermo before joining Napoli in 2010, did not celebrate his fantastic curling effort, although he was rewarded with applause by the home fans.
Marek Hamsik added the third five minutes later. Fabrizio Miccoli grabbed a consolation for Palermo three minutes from time.
Bologna is 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 time in charge of Genoa got off to a dreadful start as he saw his new side lose 3-0 at Cagliari.
Joaquin Larrivey fired Cagliari in front in the 13th minute from the spot and Victor Ibarbo doubled its 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, Roma captain Francesco Totti scored two penalties to help his side to a 2-0 win over Chievo Verona.
Stevan Jovetic also scored twice — including once from the spot — as Fiorentina beat struggling Novara 3-0. Riccardo Montolivo grabbed the Tuscan side's other goal.