Juventus vs Napoli Throwback: The Beginning of Napoli’s Title Meltdown

The history of Serie A is punctuated by instances when a Scudetto that seemed already won suddenly changed destination during the latest stages of the campionato. Milan have squandered their title chances at least twice in the last laps of the league, and on both occasions due to some unexpected exploits from Verona. Inter have had their “5th of May” drama as they lost to Lazio 4-2 in the last round of the 2001/02 season.

Napoli also have their own bitter memories when it comes to wasting it all. The 1987/88 season is remembered for how the Partenopei threw a Scudetto away in such a sounding fashion, that their sudden, incredible meltdown sparked allegations about Napoli having intentionally thrown the title under pressure from the local powerful mafia.

It is a story with many dark angles, which we recalled in detail here and that we won’t consider today. This time, we’ll only stick to what happened on the pitch. And, the pitch says that Napoli’s collapse started on April 17, 1988, at the Stadio Comunale in Turin with a 1-3 defeat to – oh, the horror – their bitter enemies Juventus.

In the 1987/88 Serie A campaign, the battle for the Scudetto was an affair between the defending champions Napoli (Maradona, Careca, you know the drill…) and Arrigo Sacchi’s ambitious Milan. Juventus were not part of the equation.

The last part of the 1980s decade was not exactly the Bianconeri’s heyday as the club struggled to cope with Michel Platini’s departure and retirement. Players like Antonio Cabrini and Gaetano Scirea were hoping for a last hurrah as their careers also approached their end.

Not much could be asked to summer signings Marino Magrin and Luigi De Agostini, who were honest journeymen but nothing more. On the other hand, the landing in Turin of Liverpool star striker Ian Rush came with high expectations for the Welshman (spoiler alert: They would not be met as Rush would pack his bags and return to Liverpool after only one lackluster season with the Bianconeri)

All in all, Juventus were not made to fight for the title, and they didn’t, rather focusing their ambitions on grabbing a slot for the UEFA Cup. But they did not miss the chance to play a nasty trick on the defending champions, one that resulted in shaking Napoli’s confidence and opening a fatal five game non-winning streak.

When Juventus and Napoli met at the Stadio Comunale, there were exactly five league games left and the Partenopei still had a four-point lead over Milan. In an age when two points were awarded for a win, that was a comfortable lead.

But on that day, things started to spiral down early on for Napoli as World Cup 1982 hero Cabrini cared to remember the audience that, even at 31, he could still make a difference as he jumped to head the ball home from a corner taken by Massimo Mauro.

One could soon have become two as Juve’s Danish striker Michael Laudrup tested goalkeeper Claudio Garella with a sharp shot, but Garellik pulled off his trademark “foot save” to deny the Dane.

As referee Tullio Lanese blew for half time, the two sides were still separated by one goal only. Napoli’s coach Ottavio Bianchi went all in and made two substitutions within ten minutes after the restart, which really meant changing it all in an age when only two subs per match were allowed.

Initially, it seemed to work, as Napoli had their chances to rebalance the match. Juve’s shot-stopper Stefano Tacconi had to come up with a reckless exit to block Careca’s incursion into the box, while Andrea Carnevale, who had replaced Bruno Giordano, hit the crossbar from point blank range.

But it was a short-lasting illusion. On 67 minutes, Mauro picked De Agostini along the left flank, and the former Verona defender served Rush in the middle of the box. The Welshman showed some rare glimpse of his class during his stay in Turin with a brilliant volley that left no chance to Garella.

Just five minutes later, to block a dangerous fast break, a 21-year-old Ciro Ferrara was left with no other option that knock down Laudrup in the box, offering Juve the opportunity to round up the scoring from the penalty spot. It was Gigi De Agostini to convert the spot-kick and make it 3-0 for Juventus.

Hey, but wait a minute, what about Maradona in all this?

El Pibe de Oro was on the pitch, of course. But it’s not like he could always be on the spotlight and save the day for Napoli. On that day, he limited himself to a dazzling dribble through the Bianconeri’s backline that put Careca in condition to score the only goal of the day for the Partenopei with an easy tap in. But it was too late.

Juventus won 3-1, Milan reduced their distance from Napoli to two points. The rest is well known, even though the reasons for Napoli’s subsequent meltdown were never fully explained. Between allegations of mafia’s influences and a presumed locker room feud between part of the players and coach Ottavio Bianchi, Napoli’s claim to the Scudetto vanished, only to reappear two years later in an equally dramatic fashion. But that is another story.


April 17, 1988 – Serie A 1987/88 Round 26

SCORERS: 22′ Cabrini (J), 67′ Rush (J), 74′ De Agostini (J, pen.), 81′ Careca (N)

JUVENTUS: Tacconi, Favero, Cabini, Bruno, Brio, Tricella, Mauro (88′ Buso), Bonini, Rush, De Agostini, Laudrup (84′ Scirea) (Bodini, Alessio, Vignola) Coach: Marchesi
NAPOLI: Garella, Ferrara, Francini, Bagni (56′ Filardi), Ferrario, Renica, Careca, De Napoli, Giordano (46′ Carnevale), Maradona, Romano (Di Fusco, Bigliardi, Sola) Coach: Bianchi

REFEREE: Mr. Lanese from Messina
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Bruno, Bonini (J), Francini (N); Red Card: Cabrini (J)