“Roma and Napoli had a superb campaign,” observed Juve boss Max Allegri in a press conference at the end of the season, “and Juventus did even better.” You have to feel a little sympathy for Roma and Napoli, both clubs shattered their highest points tally and both scored goals like they were going out of fashion, yet won nothing. Juventus’ hegemony in Serie A is so strong that it simply leaves little margin for error from would-be challengers. The ante can’t be raised any higher.
Both clubs made for fantastic bridesmaids, but what other clubs down the years threatened to become brides, before falling short?
5. Perugia 1978-79
Fabio Capello’s almost impregnable Milan side of the early 1990s went undefeated for nearly two years. A run encompassing all of the 1991-92 season and the majority of the next, before succumbing to Parma and the octopus-like limbs of Faustino Asprilla, however they weren’t the first.
Perugia managed the extraordinary feat in 1978-79. Under the guise of Ilario Castagner Il Grifoni came within touching distance of achieving the most unlikely of title wins. Perugia had only been in Serie A for three years before the beginning of 1978-79, but the club endured a difficult period the previous season following the death of midfielder Renato Curi. Curi had died of cardiac arrest during a league match against Juventus and Perugia, who were top of the table at the time, understandably lost focus and finished 7th.
A team with a blend of experience and youth took the 78-79 season by storm and were challenging for the title along with Milan. Perugia sat atop the table for several weeks in November before Milan asserted themselves.
Perugia kept pace with Milan into the new year and came perilously close to losing the unbeaten record against Inter. Having been 2-0 down they pulled it back to 2-2 but lost key man Franco Vannini not only for the rest of the season but forever. His double leg break forcing him to retire.
Perugia simply drew too many games; 19 draws from a possible 30 was never going to win a title, even in the two points per win era. Seven of their last nine games resulted in a draw. Whilst Castagner’s side were stingy at the back, they only conceded 16 goals all season, their problem was in attack, in turning some of those draws into wins.
They would finish four points short of Milan, but would earn a place in history as the first undefeated team, something that has only been matched twice.
4. Fiorentina 1981-82
The title race that instigated a rivalry; Fiorentina’s deep-seated hatred of Juventus is legendary in the Italian game, and the 1981-82 season is the point of origin.
Spearheaded by experienced players Ciccio Graziani, Giancarlo Antognoni and Daniel Pertoni with a sprinkle of youth in the shape of Daniele Massaro and Pietro Vierchowod, Fiorentina got off to a promising start to the season and found themselves top of Serie A.
Juventus emerged as i Viola’s main challengers but as the winter break approached both sides suffered losses to key personnel. Juve’s legendary striker Roberto Bettega tore knee ligaments in a European Cup tie with Belgian side Anderlecht in November.
Three weeks later, Fiorentina’s Antognoni was involved in a nasty collision with Genoa’s goalkeeper Silvano Martina. Antognoni was out cold, having suffered a fractured skull, and only the quick intervention of Genoa’s team doctor saved the midfielder from permanent brain damage.
Fiorentina stayed on top through to late March, when The Old Lady regained first place with a run of seven consecutive victories. The two sides played out a 0-0 draw in early April.
Both went into the final day of the season level on 44 points and with away fixture to play; Juventus had to travel to the bottom of the boot to play Catanzaro, who had nothing to play for; Fiorentina meanwhile had to fly to Sardinia to play Cagliari, who were fighting relegation. Even if you aren’t familiar with how this ends, you can pretty much hazard a guess.
Fiorentina dominate Cagliari but can’t find an opening, and when they do, they’ve a goal contentiously disallowed for a push on the goalkeeper and the game ends in a 0-0 draw. In Catanzaro, Juventus win 1 – 0 thanks to a penalty from Liam Brady – told before the game that this was to be his last – and celebrate their 20th title.
Juve’s penalty can’t be disputed, but Fiorentina’s continual claim that Catanzaro were denied a clear penalty isn’t as clear cut as they like to imagine. Nevertheless, Fiorentina were outraged. Antognoni, who thankfully made a full recovery and returned to the side for the run in, remarked, “They robbed us of the title.”
Yet the crux of the matter is that Fiorentina simply drew too many games. Juventus by comparison, didn’t lose a single game after the winter break and while they lost a match more than the Florentines, they also won two more matches. Proving crucial as the season reached its endgame.
Fiorentina haven’t come as close to winning the league since.
3. Roma 2007-08
Roma filled the void left by Juventus and Milan in the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal. Whilst Juve served a year in Serie B and faced a mammoth rebuilding job following a quick promotion to the top flight, Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan seemed more interesting in racking up Champions Leagues, adding their last of seven in the season following Calciopoli.
Roma were thus unintentionally thrust into the role of main contenders. These were dark times for calcio in general, with scandals and crowd violence becoming ever more prominent. However, in Luciano Spalletti’s first reign at Roma, they had a side capable of playing some of the most breath-taking football on the continent.
Spalletti had pioneered the ‘false nine’ 4-6-0 formation the previous season, but in 2007-08 returned to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 system. Defensively they were suspect but Roma’s midfield was their real strength; Daniele De Rossi and the massively underrated David Pizarro sat in front of the defence, with the Chilean orchestrating play and De Rossi usually the destructive force. The attacking trio of Mancini, Rodrigo Taddei and Ludovic Giuly offered a mix of speed, finesse and guile, and they supported either Francesco Totti or Mirko Vučinić as the lone striker.
Most expected Inter to win the league, and Roma to be their nearest challengers. And that was how the season played out. Roma initially went top of the table after winning their opening three matches. Inter leapfrogged them in late September following a crushing 4-1 home defeat to the Nerazzurri. Roma then became the chasers, as Roberto Mancini’s Inter steamrolled through the opposition.
However by late February Inter’s locomotive started to splutter; a draw away at Sampdoria and at home to Roma followed a defeat to Napoli. Further draws against Genoa and Lazio and, crucially, a home defeat to Juventus reduced what was at its peak an eleven-point gap to four in the space of a month. Roma were starting to believe.
Roma’s mental frailties - something that blighted both Spalletti era’s - raced to the surface for the run in. Roma could only manage draws against some of the lesser lights of the league, a pair of 1-1 draws against Cagliari and Livorno, who finished bottom, showcased their inability to win when the pressure was on.
By the final game of the season the deficit was reduced to a single point. Inter had to travel to a Parma side facing relegation whilst Roma were also on the road, playing Catania.
Mirko Vučinić gave Roma an early lead in Sicily and for 54 glorious minutes, Roma were champions. Inter struggled to break down a resolute Parma defence in a washed out Stadio Ennio Tardini. Mancini in a sheer move of desperation, hauled on Zlatan Ibrahimović, who had been out injured since early April and clearly wasn’t match fit, to rescue the title.
The Swede duly obliged, scoring two goals to bring the title back to Milan and relegating Parma in the process. Roma’s spirit dropped after word filtered through at the Stadio Angelo Massimino, and Catania equalised.
Roma would get even closer to the title two years later under Claudio Ranieri, having a firm hand on the title before famously losing 2-1 at home to Sampdoria. But Spalletti’s side gets the nod for the sheer beauty of their play; they would get some measure of revenge, defeating Inter in the final of the Coppa Italia. But they haven’t won anything since.
2. Inter 1997-98
Never has a title challenge been propelled by a force of nature quite like Ronaldo’s opening season at Inter. Signed in June 1997, El Fenomeno almost single handedly drove the club to their first title since 1989.
Ronaldo was only 20 years old when he swapped Spain for Italy, but was already the finest player in the game. Inter finished third in 1996-97 and believed the signing of Ronaldo would give them the extra quality required to go all the way.
The 1997-98 season was essentially about two players; Ronaldo and Alex Del Piero, both trying to outshine the other on a weekly basis. Ronaldo would strike first, assisting Youri Djorkaeff in the 1 – 0 over Juventus in January 1998 to give Inter a 4 point lead.
While it would be easy to say Inter were all about Ronaldo, and there is a certain element of truth to it, that would also do a disservice to the quality that ran right through the backbone of the team; from Gianluca Pagliuca between the sticks to Beppe Bergomi and Javier Zanetti in defence to Aron Winter and Diego Simeone in midfield and either Djorkaeff or Iván Zamorano partnering Ronaldo; this was a team laced with quality.
By late April, both had secured places in the finals of the Champions League and UEFA Cup, and a single point divided the two teams as they came together for the title decider at the Stadio delle Alpi. Then came that moment.
The Iuliano-Ronaldo incident has been dissected countless times so it won’t be repeated here, but there’s no question it sparked what was a friendly rivalry into one of intense hatred. Inter, rightly, felt a huge sense of injustice. The incident caused such a storm it became the subject of debate in the Italian parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. And a ruckus between MPs ensued. Ronaldo nor Inter boss Gigi Simoni has ever got over it.
The consensus when retrospectively looking at the career of Ronaldo is that his season at Barcelona was his career zenith. Anyone who witnessed Ronaldo in his first, devastating season with Inter would say otherwise. Ronaldo took the most tactically challenging, most competitive and most defensively suffocating league in the history of the sport, and promptly tore it to shreds. “He was impossible to stop,” Alessandro Nesta, who knew a thing or two about defending, has said about the Brazilian. Paolo Maldini has echoed similar sentiments down the years.
Ronaldo would score 25 league goals, Inter would finish five points adrift of Juventus, but they would have to wait another nine years for a title. By which time Ronaldo was playing in the black and red of Milan, never to win a Scudetto.
1. Parma 1996-97
Throughout all the trials and tribulations that followed Parma’s collapse in the early ‘00s, there was a huge sigh of regret that they didn’t manage to win a Scudetto, for they won everything else. Two Uefa Cups, a Cup Winners’ Cup, 3 Coppa Italia’s and an Italian Super cup during their dairy-funded years. Only the biggest prize of them all eluded them.
The closet they got to the promised land was in 1996-97, when they slugged it out with regular ‘90s foe Juventus. While many fondly remember the swashbuckling double cup-winning side of 1998/99 under Alberto Malesani, Carlo Ancelotti’s extremely efficient team were equally as good, if lacking a little flair.
Parma had plateaued under Nevio Scala, finishing the previous season in 6th, their lowest since arriving in the top flight in 1990. Scala was replaced by Ancelotti, who only had a year of coaching under his belt, but had guided Reggiana to promotion.
Ancelotti, at the time stringently linked to Arrigo Sacchi’s 4-4-2 pressing ideals, made radical changes; Hristo Stoichkov, Pippo Inzaghi, Lorenzo Minotti and Fernando Couto were all sold. Gianfranco Zola would later follow them out the door as Ancelotti marginalised the diminutive Sardinian. Chelsea would be eternally grateful.
Parma’s title challenge was a slow burner, akin to a season of The Wire, they didn’t reach second place until early March. They had started the season slowly, so slow in fact that by Christmas they were languishing in 11th place. Ancelotti’s system wasn’t gaining instant results, yet two back-to-back wins over Milan and Juventus would ignite their season.
Ancelotti’s Parma didn’t score a lot of goals; only 41 throughout the campaign, yet they were marshaled superbly at the back by Fabio Cannavaro and Nèstor Sensini, with Lillian Thuram at right back and Antontio Benarrivo on the left. They conceded only 26 goals, two more than champions Juventus,
Both sides met with three games remaining and a Parma victory would see the gap reduced to three points. They took the lead after half an hour, Zinedine Zidane scoring a bizarre own goal from a corner. Two minutes before half time, Juve, in a reoccurring theme in this piece, scored under controversial circumstances.
Zidane flung in a cross into the box for Christian Vieri, who promptly flung himself to the floor, implying that Cannavaro had tugged his shirt. Referee Pierluigi Collina, not normally a man to shriek under pressure from a raucous home crowd, amazingly awarded Juve a penalty. Parma were incensed.
Midfielder Massimo Crippa got sent off, as did Ancelotti, for remonstrating. The game would end in a stalemate but the gap was now six points, the title race all but over.
Juventus got the point they needed in their following match against Lazio to secure the league, Parma would win their final two games, closing the gap to two points by the end and would qualify for the Champions League. But they would never come as close again to winning the league.
Ancelotti couldn’t build on his impressive first season, refusing to authorize the signing of Roberto Baggio would be something he would later come to regret. The following season they finished 6th, and Ancelotti was sacked in the summer of 1998.
Words by Emmet Gates: @EmmetGates
Emmet is a freelance football writer based in Italy. He is the creator of Goal O' The Times. As well as The Gentleman Ultra, he has written for FourFourTwo, These Football Times and In Bed With Maradona.