After a resurgent season under Roy Hodgson ended with a disappointing loss in UEFA Cup final against Schalke 04 on penalties, Inter kicked off the 1997-98 campaign with a flying start under new manger Luigi Simoni.
With star striker Ronaldo leading the front line, Nerazzurri dominated the Serie A early in the season by going on a twelve-game stretch without a loss. During the fantastic run of form, team traveled to Stadio San Paolo to take on a struggling Napoli side whose glory days were well past them.
After star players such as Diego Maradona, Gianfranco Zola, Daniel Fonseca and Ciro Ferrara left the club in the early nineties, the club had been in a gradual downward spiral for the large part of the decade and after a long stretch of competing in Italy’s topflight, Napoli were trying to fight off relegation.
Going into round six match against the resurgent Nerazzurri side, Napoli were in horrendous form, managing only three points from five matches and fresh off a 6-2 away loss against Roma at the Olimpico.
Desperate to turn their season around, new manager Carlo Mazzone had his side lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Giuseppe Taglialatela in goal and Roberto Ayala, Francesco Baldini, Mirko Conte, Raffaele Sergio rounding off the defense. A midfield quartet of Francesco Turrini, Roberto Goretti, Fabio Rossitto, Raffaele Longo played behind attacking duo Igor Protti and Claudio Bellucci.
To continue their fantastic start, Luigi Simoni also went with a 4-4-2 formation with Pagliuca in goal and a defensive line of Zanetti, Bergomi, Galante and Sartor. In midfield Francesco Moriero, Aron Winter, Ze Elias and Diego Simeone played behind the attacking duo of Ronaldo and Youri Djorkaeff.
Napoli relied on the pace in the wings to try and get in behind the defenders and get a cross into the center for Protti, while Bellucci dropped back to help connect the midfield with the attack. The Partenopei tested Pagliuca from close range early in first half but failed to take an early lead.
While Napoli tried to control the game early by controlling majority of the possession in first ten minutes, it was Inter who took an early lead following a freekick routine where Ronaldo’s powerful header troubled Taglialatela and Galante converted the rebound off the save. Having difficulties getting a decisive result at San Paolo for large part of the past decade, Nerazzurri grew in confidence following the early lead and gradually showed their dominance throughout the match.
After conceding, Napoli tried to get back into the match by regaining possession and controlling the flow of the match by dictating the tempo. Any attempts to build up through the middle of the field were thwarted by the Nerazzurri midfield, resulting in counter-attacks for the visitors. Mazzone instructed his men to build through the wings and push the ball forward to Protti and Bellucci in efforts to disrupt Inter defense.
Baldini and Ayala also looked for opportunities to bypass the midfield and launch long passes straight to their strikers, which was often followed up by a quick passing sequence between Protti and Bellucci. However, Pagliuca was putting on quite a show with one acrobatic save after another. Going into half-time, the score remained in favor of the visitors at 0-1 and Mazzone was visibly unhappy with his side.
However as the game resumed in the second half, there were no visible half-time adjustments from the Partenopei until Mazzone substituted Protti for Argentine striker Jose Luis Calderon at the sixty minutes mark. Before the move could bear fruit, Nerazzurri added to their lead after yet another set-piece routine where Djorkaeff laid off the ball for Galante who ran up and blasted a shot from the edge of the box, resulting in the ball taking a big deflection off left winger Turrini for an own goal.
Inter were now firmly in control of the match while Napoli kept fighting back looking for goals to get back into the match. As the match headed towards the end, pressure was piling on Napoli and despite getting a rare one-on-one opportunity, Bellucci failed to score.
Pagliuca’s movement to close down tight angles and quick reflexes maintained a clean sheet for Inter. The Nerazzurri goalkeeper’s fantastic man-of-the-match performance resulted in him getting high praise from Napoli manager Carlo Mazzone in the post-match interview where he attributed their struggles to score to Pagliuca’s brilliance.