San Paolo, Naples
November 27, 1988
Napoli – 4 (Careca-2, Maradona, Francini)
AC Milan – 1 (Virdis)
Late 1980s sparked off a golden age for Serie A. Italy became a hotbed for superstars of world football in that era with crowds thronging to grounds which were getting ready to host their first World Cup in more than half a century. AC Milan and Napoli shared a particularly heated rivalry in this period – winning six of the eight Scudetti between 1986 and 1994. However, few results were more astonishing than Azzurri’s 4-1 thrashing of their opponents in 1988.
Diego Maradona’s arrival in San Paolo for a world record transfer fee was astounding, to say the least. The Argentine’s unveiling in front of a 60,000 strong crowd in Naples was as bombastic as Queen Concert. And he soon began to deliver. Ottavio Bianchi’s Napoli side is often and unfairly derided as a one man team but it is undeniable that it was El Diego who took Napoli to dizzy heights they had never reached before and have never since. In Maradona’s first five seasons, Napoli finished in top-2 four consecutive times winning their first and second Scudetti in the process.
Along with Napoli, AC Milan were also asserting their dominance in Serie A. The Rossoneri had risen from the ashes of relegations in early 1980s thanks to Silvio Berlusconi’s financial help. The Italian media mogul bankrolled a star studded team which broke new grounds and set numerous records under the tutelage of former shoe salesman Arrigo Sacchi. Boasting of the Dutch trio as well as arguably the greatest back-4 of all time, AC Milan were also a force in European Cup.
Giovanni Trappatoni’s Inter had set an early pace to 1988/89 Serie A season and were leading the table when Napoli hosted Milan in eighth round. Napoli had picked up a marvelous 5-3 win against Juventus in Turin in previous round with Careca grabbing a hat-trick. AC Milan, on the other hand, had squeezed past Hellas in Verona 2-1. Inter were leading the table with 11 points while Napoli and Milan were on 9 and 8 points respectively.
Napoli (4-3-1-2): Giuliano Giuliani; Giovanni Francini , Giancarlo Corradini, Ciro Ferrara, Alessandro Renica; Massimo Crippa, Fernando de Napoli, Luca Fusi; Diego Maradona, Andrea Carnevale, Careca
AC Milan (4-4-2): Giovanni Galli; Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Mussi, Frank Rijkaard, Mauro Tassotti – Angelo Colombo, Alberigo Evani – Marco van Basten, Pietro Paolo Virdis
Napoli started with a 4-3-1-2 formation with Maradona playing in the hole behind Careca on the right side and Carnevale on left. Sacchi rolled out a 4-4-2 with Marco van Basten being partnered by Virdis upfront. There were no prizes for guessing who Napoli’s danger man was and AC Milan’s strategy about him soon became clear as Angelo Colombo and Paolo Maldini executed cluttering tackles on Maradona within first five minutes.
Napoli almost took the lead after eleven minutes as Careca’s diagonal pass split open Milan’s back-line, finding a completely unmarked Carnevale on the right-wing. Carnevale sprinted to the edge of the Milan box and his cross beat Galli but was a split second early for Careca, who was following up towards the empty goal. Four minutes later, the first piece of brilliance from Maradona created another chance. With his back turned towards goal and Tassoti closely watching him, Diego unleashed a splendid first time pass as Francini overlapped past the Milan backline to deliver a low cross for Carnevale, whose weak shot from less than 10 yards out was easily picked off by Galli. Refusing to be pegged back, AC Milan had a chance of their own seconds later as a one-two between van Basten and Tassoti set-up a one on one chance for the right-back, only for Giuliani to make a crucial save. Galli was soon called into action on the other end as he made a close range save from Careca. Big matches in Serie A often tended to be cagey and tactical; this showpiece had gone off to a flyer.
On 20th minute Maradona floated another spectacular reverse pass for Careca but the Brazilian failed to control the pass despite beating his marker. Seeing his strikers being closely marked, Paolo Maldini tried a thunderous long ranger on 22nd minute but it went just wide. Five minutes later Marco van Basten managed to escape Ciro Ferrara for the first time but his shot from a narrow angle was always likely to be saved. Colombo also came close seconds later, this time a last gasp lunge from Corradini blocked the Milan midfielder’s shot.
Despite those couple of chances, Napoli were growing stronger in attack and the opening goal came on 41st minute, in a typically genius fashion from Maradona. A superb chip from midfield left him on his own. Seeing the ball being too high to take a shot and Galli closing in (goalkeepers were allowed to handle outside penalty box then) he headed the ball delicately over Galli, from 30 yards out as it agonizingly bounced in.
Napoli fans had barely stopped celebrating when their team doubled their lead. Milan defence was opened up with an alarming ease as Baresi missed an overhead clearance from a punt from Giuliani. Maradona latched to the ball and set up Careca who finished it with power. Milan didn’t know what had hit them as teams went into lemon break.
And the score-board was soon reading 3-0 in second half. De Napoli’s delicious cross-field pass released Carnevale who sprinted for 50 yards. His weak shot was saved by Galli but the loose ball was slotted in by Francini, who was following up. The timing of Napoli’s goals were crucial and they killed off any motivation left in Milan. Sacchi was livid on the reserve bench and angrily waved off when a camera-man focused on him. The Rossoneri defence was in tatters as Careca forced a sharp save from Galli a minute after Napoli’s third goal.
Marking on van Basten became slightly lax after Napoli’s third goal and he managed to head just wide from a Gullit cross on 54th minute. This relaxed attitude came to haunt Napoli eight minutes later as AC Milan were awarded a penalty after Paolo Maldini was brought down in the box – Virdis sent Giuliani the wrong way to give back some lingering hope to Milan faithful. Sensing an opportunity, Sacchi brought on two substitutes to stretch a tiring Napoli defence.
The home team needed another goal to kill off Milan’s challenge and they got it through arguably the best goal of the game through Careca. A superb long pass from Francini from edge of his own box released Careca who started his run from the half-line with Costacurta shadowing him. The Brazilian covered half the field without his marker coming anywhere close to him before expertly beating Galli with the outside of his boot.
That fourth goal ended this match as a competition and frustration of Milan players was getting all too apparent with the usually tidy Paolo Maldini going for some rough challenges on Maradona and Careca.
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AC Milan’s offside trap was one of their strongest points and Napoli successfully broke it in this match. Their approach was simple but effective. When going on attack Maradona would drop back, pulling either Milan center back with him. Anyone among Careca or Carnevale would start their short but fully accelerated sprint at the same moment, ensuring that rest of the team didn’t get caught in the offside trap. They ran into channels between Milan defenders, rather than aiming to get past individual players. Their co-ordination was perfect and Napoli opened up Milan defence far too often with this tactic and each of their goals came because of these small sprints. AC Milan’s tactics relied heavily on their back four pushing up the pitch and squeezing the field to their liking, thus giving less time and space to their opponents. With the Napoli front three constantly making runs off the shoulder of last Milan defender, Sacchi’s team often ended up chasing shadows.
Marco van Basten eventually scored 19 goals that season and was the second highest scorer in Serie A. It was vital to keep him under wraps and Ciro Ferrara did a stellar job on keeping the Dutch man in check. Ferrara made sure that van Basten had to play with his back turned towards the goal. This was most evident in first half when he almost turned past Ferrara inside Napoli penalty box but the Italian somehow managed to rob possession despite being on the ground. Corradini, on the other hand focused on cutting off passes, especially Baresi’s long balls, towards van Basten and made sure that he was unable to bring his team-mates in the game.
Man of the Match
The man who scored 97 goals for Napoli in 221 appearances is often forgotten and hidden behind Maradona’s big shadow. The 1988/89 season was perhaps Careca’s best in Naples as he would net 27 times in 52 matches in all competitions. Careca started as a center forward for Napoli but he swapped position with Carnevale and drifted towards the wing, with frequent cut-backs. Both of his goals were extremely well executed, second one being a solo effort and couple of his through passes split the Milan defence in half.
Despite this thumping win, Napoli would not win Serie A that year. Inter were almost unstoppable as they led the table from first day of the season till last, winning a title which would eventually prove to be their only Scudetto for next one and half decades. Inter lost just twice on the way to the title and racked up an impressive goal difference of +48. Napoli and Milan finished 2nd and 3rd respectively, 11 and 12 points behind Trap’s team.
Interestingly, and a fact which proves the quality of Serie A at that time beyond doubt, both clubs found success in Europe despite not coming within touching distance of Inter. AC Milan started with a stutter in European Champions Cup but became unstoppable in latter stages with this 5-0 win over Real Madrid going into history books. The Rossoneri would match the record of biggest margin of win in European Cup final by thrashing Gheorghe Hagi’s Steaua Bucharesti 4-0. They would also beat Cryuff’s Barcelona to win UEFA Super Cup.
Napoli won the first European title, UEFA Cup, in no less spectacular fashion. They faced off against bitter rivals and defending champions Juventus in quarter-final. Things didn’t pan out well in first leg as the Old Lady trotted to a 2-0 win. Needing a comeback, Maradona pulled a goal back within 10 minutes from the spot, at San Paolo. Carnevale’s goal just before half time wiped Juve’s first leg lead. The match went into extra-time and looked destined to go to penalties but Alessandro Renica popped up with a match winner on 120th minute. Napoli welcomed Bayern Munich at San Paolo in first leg – the match made famous by Maradona’s warm-up routine, winning 2-0. They twice took the lead in Munich but had to settle for a 2-2 away draw and prevented an all-West German final.
Stuttgart took an early lead in the first leg of the final on 17th minute. Napoli fans suffered for almost an hour before Maradona leveled the score for Careca to eventually slot home an 87th minute winner. In front of 67,000 crowd in Neckarstadion, Napoli would once again rise to the challenge, never trailing in a memorable match which eventually ended 3-3. It was enough to win the UEFA Cup title, 5-4 on aggregate. Just like this match against Milan, Careca would excel for Napoli in UEFA Cup as well, scoring in each of the four semi-final and final legs and finished Serie A as second highest scorer with 19 goals. The Carnevale – Careca – Maradona trio of Napoli is not as acclaimed as the Ma-Gi-Ca trident but they would score 41 of their team’s 57 goals in Serie A that season.