If 1991 began with Serie A as the undisputed best league in the world, then January only highlighted how difficult it was to win it.
Leaders Sampdoria had begun to wobble. Losses at home to Torino, away at Lecce and then a frustrating home draw with Lazio, meant Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and the rest dropped to fifth.
Gigi Maifredi’s Juventus recovered from December’s submission at Milan with a late Pierluigi Casiraghi goal overcoming Napoli in Turin. The next week they won handsomely at Pisa, with the young Casiraghi starring again netting a hattrick and Roberto Baggio scoring twice.
Widespread enthusiasm for Casiraghi led to calls for his selection for the Italian national team, all of which was helpfully deflecting the scrutiny on Salvatore Schillaci. Schillaci’s modest strike rate at Juventus after his World Cup exploits for Italy the summer was one of the disappointments of the season.
Neither Casiraghi, Baggio or Schillaci could prevent a first home loss for Juve in Week 17. It was visiting Genoa who stunned the Old Lady when a Tomas Skuhravy strike prevented Juve from going top and gave Osvaldo Bagnoli’s team another memorable scalp.
Perhaps the story of the campaign up to that point came that same weekend when league leaders Milan were rumbled in Emilia Romagna. Two goals from Alessandro Melli gave upstarts Parma a landmark victory and sent shockwaves across Italy.
Spearheaded by Melli and Tomas Brolin, the Serie A new boys were a young and dynamic team. Coach Nevio Scala’s men were finally putting the city on the football map. Now there was something else for Parma to be known for other pasta, ham and cheese and the birthplace of composer, Giuseppe Verdi.
At the halfway stage of the Serie A season, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter would lead the league and be crowned “Winter Champions”. Their German World Cup-winning trio Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Jurgen Klinsmann alongside Italian internationals Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi, Ricardo Ferri, Nicola Berti and Aldo Serena were solid if not spectacular and highly fancied for the title.
Diego Maradona’s days at Napoli were numbered. Scapegoated for Napoli’s early exit from the European cup and sued by Napoli for further contract breaches, by February he was also embroiled in a paternity suit and accused of involvement in a Mafia-run prostitution and drugs racket.
Maradona would protest that there was a vendetta against him. Provoked by the Italian’s elimination from the World Cup at the hands of Argentina. Whether there was an element of truth to this or merely his paranoia, it was clear that any attempts or club apparatus which had protected him in the past was no longer there.
An increasingly overweight Maradona remained a distraction at Napoli, but there were still flashes of the old magic. A more than welcome 4-2 win at home to Parma in Week 20 was largely Maradona-inspired. But it was in the form of his shy and unassuming heir that offered hope for the future down in Naples.
Twenty-four-year-old Gianfranco Zola was in his second term at the San Paolo. The previous year he had appeared eighteen times in Napoli’s 1990 scudetto success. Naturally right-footed but at 5’6, he was similar in stature to his mentor Maradona.
Zola also had comparable gifts to the Argentine. With that same low centre of gravity, expertise in dead-ball situations and the ability to link up with Brazilian striker Careca, it was evident MaraZola would have a big part to play in Napoli’s post-Diego era.
Maradona knew it too. In an away game at Pisa, he would hand Zola his number ten shirt and take the unfamiliar number nine for himself.
The move caused a stir in the Italian press. In one symbolic gesture, Maradona had graciously recognised his protege’s ascendancy at the club while also indicating that he himself had one leg out of the door.
On that same Week 21 Sunday over in Genoa, a Vialli penalty saw Sampdoria beat Juventus at home and move back to the top of Serie A.
Wins at home to Parma and Milan followed and by the middle of March with nine games remaining, Sampdoria were back on top of the table and led Inter by a single point.
Vialli was in a rich vein of goalscoring form and led the goalscoring charts overall with thirteen goals. Impressive, given he missed the first seven weeks of the season.
Neighbours Genoa were having their best season in years. The pairing of Czech striker Skuhravy and the Uruguayan Carlos Aguilera were hitting their stride. With twenty-one goals between them, coach Bagnoli’s attractive brand of football meant Genoa looked every bit like they would be playing European football next season.
Week 26 would prove a fateful day in the story of the 1990-91 season. Chasing Inter would falter at the hands of third-placed Milan in the return of the Milan derby. Marco Van Basten’s strike deep into the second half saw Arrigo Sacchi’s side avenge their derby defeat in November.
While Milan had always been there and thereabouts in the title race, relations between the players and coach Sacchi were strained. Van Basten most notably objected to Sacchi’s drill sergeant approach and it was generally accepted across Italy that Milan and Sacchi would part ways in the summer.
Taking advantage of Inter’s derby slip, Sampdoria would beat Napoli comfortably at home. Just as they had run out 4-1 winners when the two teams met in Week 9, the same scoreline in Genoa saw two more goals from Vialli.
Maradona’s late penalty would not only be a consolation for Napoli but prove the Argentine’s last meaningful act in Italian football.
Only hours after the game, it was announced that Maradona had failed a drug test. Taken after the previous week’s game at home to Bari, traces of cocaine were found and Maradona was swiftly suspended by Napoli and soon banned from all football activities by FIFA for fifteen months.
Days after the story broke, Maradona left Napoli in the middle of the night and flew back home to Argentina. An ignominious end to a glittering and tumultuous career in Italy.
With the Maradona saga at an end, the new Napoli showed admirable resolve in the weeks that followed. With two draws, featuring spirited fightbacks at home to Inter and away at in-form Torino, they would continue to go unbeaten for the remainder of the campaign.
By contrast, Juventus were in free fall. Roberto Baggio declining to take a penalty against his old team in a 1-0 defeat in Florence, was just one of the highlights indicative of a dysfunctional end of the season for the most-followed team. Baggio was later substituted and would be seen heading back to the changing room holding a Fiorentina scarf.
The Maifredi experiment had not worked and Juventus would not even qualify for European competition. The Turin giants would turn to their old coach Trappatoni for the following year.
Crosstown rivals Torino, under coach Emiliano Mondonico, were having a much better time by leapfrogging Juventus and Parma and moving into fifth. The exciting emergence of their young winger Gianluigi Lentini along with Juve’s Casiraghi and Napoli’s Zola meant that things seemed to bode well for the future of homegrown players in the ever more cosmopolitan league.
With just four games remaining, it was Trapattoni’s Inter who lay in second place and trailed Sampdoria by three points. With the leaders visiting San Siro, Vujadin Boskov’s Sampdoria team knew that by just avoiding defeat they would almost certainly win their first title.
In an extraordinary match and a must-win for Inter, the home side peppered the visitor’s goal throughout. Sampdoria’s goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca denied Inter time after time, including saving a Matthäus penalty.
Sampdoria always looked dangerous on the break, however, and second-half goals from midfielder Giuseppe Dossena and Vialli settled the game and all but guaranteed Sampdoria’s first and only Italian league championship.
Sampdoria would wrap up the scudetto at home to Lecce two weeks later. While an incredible feat for a provincial side, it had certainly been no fluke. They had beaten both Milan teams home and away, thrashed champions Napoli home and away and were unbeaten against Juventus and both the Roman clubs.
Vialli would end the season as the league’s most prolific marksman with nineteen goals. 1990-91 may have seen the fall of Diego Maradona, but it would also be a redemptive year for Gianluca Vialli.
With a disappointing world cup on home soil now in the rear view mirror, it was he who in large part had taken Sampdoria to the top of Italian football.