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Throwback Thursday | Diego Maradona’s moment of magic turns him into a Neapolitan legend

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Throwback Thursday - December 17th edition

Sportscafe

Throwback Thursday | Diego Maradona’s moment of magic turns him into a Neapolitan legend

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Siddhant Lazar

12/17/2020

Moments transcends everything in sport and nothing defines that more than football especially the good ones. Welcome to 'Throwback Thursday' where we take a look at a moment in time, and this week, we look at the 1986/87 Serie A season and a goal that Napoli fans will remember with a starry gaze.

It’s the 26th of April 1987 and the Stadio San Paolo is roaring. They’ve been having the time of their lives over the last three odd years but this season has been something else altogether. There are only three, four if you include this one, games left in the league season and the Partonopei sit atop the Serie A table. They’ve already managed to score a goal and with minutes left for half-time, another one could prove to be the game for the hosts.

That’s why the stadium is roaring, trying to cheer on their side because even this early in the game they knew that a second goal would not just be a big thing but put the pressure on Juventus. This was after all a title race and the side from Naples were in the lead at the moment but a win, against AC Milan, would all but clinch a historic league title. Their first ever in the history of Napoli and their first since they won the 1976/76 Coppa Italia, only their second top-flight trophy.

This could prove to be the culmination of a moment that the 55,000 fans at the Stadio San Paulo had waited all their lives for and the better part of three years. It’s why the moment Bruno Giordano got the ball on the left wing, he cut back inside and looked for the run of Napoli’s talisman. The one man who could truly make a difference for the club and the man who had proved to be a difference-maker with nine goals so far.

Sure, Diego Maradona had a Flippo Galli watching and keeping a very close eye on him but this was Diego Armando Maradona which is why Giordano had faith. The clock ticks on and Giordano had other options. There was a runner towards his left, which would have been a simple slide-rule pass and safer options towards his right with not one but two men standing and waiting for the pass.

There was also the more Hollywood-esque cross-field ball towards the far right but Giordano had eyes for only one as the stadium held their collective breath. They knew something was about to happen but what it was, few would have imagined. Time has now stopped but before we dive into the climax and reach the end, let’s roll it back and figure out how we got here in the first place. Because as luck would have it, nobody on this planet ever expected Ottavio Bianchi’s Napoli to be here in this position.

Because this is Napoli, who a mere 61 years after being founded were now challenging for a Scudetto. This was something that the club from Naples had never done in the recent past but they had managed to mount challenges. They never amounted to anything with the Partenopei falling short in the end but they did manage to finish second on two occasions, first under Bruno Pesaola nearly twenty years ago and then under Luis Vinicio, ten years ago.

Since then, Napoli had done well but there were nothing more than a mid-table club capable of making an occasional cameo in the upper echelons of the league. It wasn’t something anyone ever expected from them with consistency a myth although the same could never be said about AC Milan. The Rossoneri were Italian gods compared to the team from Naples because in the same twenty-year spell where finished second twice, AC Milan won three titles.

Not only that, they finished amongst the top four eleven times which includes not one, not two but three second-place finishes. But this wasn’t that same AC Milan side as it had barely been four years since their return to the division from Serie B. To make things even worse the club had just sacked coach Nils Liedholm not even twenty days ago with Capello set to finish the season out before the Rossoneri appointed someone new.

But even then, the 40-year-old had impressed in his first outing, a 1-0 win over Torino, and was looking for a bigger scalp with few coming as big Napoli that season. That was mainly to impress Silvio Berlusconi but the Rossoneri were never in title contention. Instead, it was a three-way battle between the Partenopei, Inter Milan and the reigning champions in the form of Juventus.

Paolo Maldini vs El Diego; Two of the best in action © Twitter

Going into the game against AC Milan, Napoli were two points ahead of Inter and four ahead of Juventus and knew that they needed a win in order to keep their place. Their goals scored and goals conceded tally may have been slightly better than either side but they had the easier final four games. Inter had to face Fiorentina, Ascoli, Atalanta and Verona, while Juventus had Torino, Sampdoria, Verona and Brescia. It meant that a win against Milan would essentially be the clincher for Napoli, should things go their way.

But there was history between the three sides and it all stemmed from their coaches with Inter Milan looking for success and thus they appointed Giovanni Trapattoni from Juventus. The Nerazzurri were looking to end a five-year title absence and believed that the man who had delivered six to Juventus would be the man to do just that. The Old Lady, in turn, replaced Trapattoni with Rino Marchesi who had two spells at Napoli (1980-82; 1983-85). His replacement at the Stadio San Paulo turned out to be Ottavio Bianchi.

Bianchi had been appointed at the start of the 1985/86 season because Napoli believed him to be the man to get the best out of their superstar; Diego Armando Maradona. El Pibe de Oro signed for the Partenopei in the summer of 1984 but the club could only manage a paltry eighth-place finish. Things improved under Bianchi as he helped the club make the most out of their younger players while helping Maradona thrive, something that the Argentine never struggled at.

He finished his first season (19884/85) with 14 goals, his second with 11 goals and walked into the 1986/87 season as a World Cup winner with Argentina. Now that Albiceleste team wasn’t the worst team in the world but it certainly wasn’t the greatest which is why many remember it solely for what Maradona did and what he did was downright incredible. It was what many Napoli fans hoped he would do for their side and El Diego responded.

He had netted nine goals going into the AC Milan game, with him the club’s top scorer with four more than Andrea Carnevale. It’s why the Partenopei had so much hope pinned on the Argentine and he responded in the first half itself. Because despite a stellar back-line featuring - Alberico Evani, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Flippo Galli and Andrea Manzo, AC Milan were harassed.

But Milan were no slouches themselves because they caused serious problems for goalkeeper Claudio Garella with the Napoli man forced into a few early saves. Yet, Napoli managed to survive the impressive start that their visitors made before Andrea Carnevale opened the scoring. It took time, 33 minutes or thereabouts, but Napoli had their lead and suddenly the tide had turned.

The stadium was buzzing again because Milan’s bright start had them very concerned that their side was not going to get this over the line. After all, Napoli had walked into the game on the back of a two-game winless run with a goalless draw against Empoli and a 3-0 loss to Hellas Verona. It’s why Carnevale’s goal settled many a nerve and Napoli got going again. It was Bruno Giordano with a superb cross in and both Baresi and Milan goalkeeper Giulio Nuciari reacted badly.

That handed Carnevale with something close to a free-header and the Italian took full-advantage firing it into the net. Napoli had the lead and they were in control but Milan were never going to give up that easily which saw them charge forward relentlessly, searching for an equaliser. That opened up spaces on the fast-break for Napoli, which handed Carnevale a chance to make it 2-0 not even five minutes after he scored.

But Nuciari pulled off a top drawer save to keep his side in the running although as the half-time whistle flew closer, the stadium kept cheering their side on. Then two minutes before the half-time whistle and Bruno Giordano has the ball. The options are aplenty for the forward especially with five potential passes for him to play. A slide-rule pass finds the overlapping full-back down the left-hand side in acres of space on the flank.

The safer option hands it to the man on his right who can then move the ball further down the line to spread the Milan back-line. Then there’s the ambitious cross-field pass towards Carnevale, who on the far right would have had enough time to control and then make something happen. But Giordano has spotted something else. He has spotted Diego Maradona and a few from the crowd have as well because, at that moment, the stadium hits a silent buzz.

It’s like a blanket of anticipation had covered the Stadio San Paulo at the very moment in time that Giordano made his decision.

Welcome to a moment in history…

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