If this was Year Zero, as Gazzetta dello Sport termed it back in August, then Serie A is off to a pretty good start. A proper title race, serious competition for all the European places and Scudetto winners, Internazionale, who went on to become kings of the continent – beating this season's champions of England, Spain and Germany along the way.
José Mourinho, the manager who helped Inter become the first Italian side to win the treble, may be on his way to Real Madrid but he leaves behind a side who are well-equipped to maintain such success and a league that has rediscovered a little of the confidence that had been lost. Mourinho will be missed – by Inter, Serie A, and even those journalists who claimed to despise him – but probably not as much as he would like to imagine.
After all, it was not just Inter but teams like Roma – who came from 14 points behind to go top, even if they did stumble at the last hurdle; Sampdoria – who seized fourth place despite having an annual wage bill of just €24m, 11th biggest in Serie A and one-fifth the size of Inter's; and Palermo – whose swashbuckling forward play under Delio Rossi so nearly took them past Samp – that have reinvigorated Serie A.
The season began amid much hand-wringing over the departure from the league of stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kaká, as well as the retirement of others like Pavel Nedved and Paolo Maldini, but as it progressed the enthusiasm returned. While those at the top appeared vulnerable – last year's top five of Inter, Milan, Juventus, Fiorentina and Genoa all finished with fewer points this year than last – the group just below them had strengthened, with Napoli and even newly promoted Parma and Bari joining Palermo and Samp in the chase for European places.
At the bottom things were less competitive, with Atalanta, Siena and Livorno all relegated before their final fixtures. Which is not necessarily to say they went quietly – Atalanta had held both Inter and Milan at home, Livorno had victories over Roma and Samp, and Siena came within two minutes of ending Mourinho's eight-year unbeaten run in home league matches.
Although initial season ticket sales at many of the big clubs had fallen in the summer, the eventual attendance figure for the season, 9,642,640 (an average of 25,375 per game), was the highest since 1992-93. Inter's defeat of Bayern Munich kept Serie A above the Bundesliga in the Uefa coefficient standings a little while longer, and if the fourth Champions League berth is almost certain to be lost for 2012-13, that still feels a way off yet.
But if the league is looking ahead to Year One with renewed optimism, then we still have one last piece of business to attend to this season. Without further ado, I present the first annual Bandini awards …
Factoring in all competitions it would have to be Diego Milito, because it is hard to look past a player who not only scored a total of 30 goals this season but also more specifically got those that sealed Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League triumphs for Inter. But for Serie A itself, the award has to go to Antonio Di Natale, scorer of 29 goals in 35 league games for an Udinese team who finished 15th. His team-mates did not manage that many between them.
3rd Look, Massimo Maccarone's for Siena against Udinese last December probably isn't actually the third best goal of the season, but I'm putting it in here anyway because somehow, every time I watch, I still think his shot is going wide.
2nd Sampdoria constructed a glorious three-person move to go 2-0 up against Bologna last October, Giampaolo Pazzini chesting down then flicking on a cross from the left before Daniele Mannini crashed the ball home at the back post without letting it touch the ground.
1st Maicon's absurdly nonchalant juggle then volley for Inter against Juventus is glorious enough in its own right, but the fact it should come at such a crucial juncture of the Derby D'Italia makes it all the more so.
If this had gone in it would have been my goal of the season. During Fiorentina's first meeting of the season with Inter, Alberto Gilardino receives a long ball with his back to goal about 30 yards out. He is right between two defenders but manages to chest the ball down, flick it back over his own head before it has hit the ground then spin past the last man to go clean through on goal, beat the goalkeeper and … hit the post. Agonising.
For tension and significance, as well as quality, this award goes to Roma's 2-1 win over Inter at Stadio Olimpico in March. Up to that point Claudio Ranieri had been stubbornly insisting that Roma could not win the Scudetto, but his team closed to within a point after a game in which each team might have had a hatful. Inter hit the woodwork three times, one of those coming right at the death, while Roma had a late penalty appeal rejected.
Palermo 3-3 Roma – 23 September 2009.
Marco Storari (Sampdoria); Maicon (Inter), Javier Zanetti (Inter), Alessandro Nesta (Milan), Lúcio (Inter); Angelo Palombo (Sampdoria), Wesley Sneijder (Inter), Andrea Cossu (Cagliari), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese); Diego Milito (Inter), Fabrizio Miccoli (Palermo).
Subs: Júlio Sérgio (Roma), John Arne Riise (Roma), Simon Kjær (Palermo), Davide Pizarro (Roma), Juan Manuel Vargas (Fiorentina), Ronaldinho (Milan), Giampaolo Pazzini (Sampdoria).
Begrudgingly I say Mourinho, because whichever way you spin it, no Italian side had ever won the treble. Others deserving of a mention include Delio Rossi – who might have made Palermo a top-three side, let alone top four, had he taken over from Walter Zenga a few weeks sooner; then Francesco Guidolin and Giampiero Ventura – both of whom took newly promoted sides to top-half finishes. There is, of course, also the winner of our next award ...
There are those who feel Claudio Ranieri is too nice to win titles but the man's bravery, at least, should never be questioned again after he substituted Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi at half-time of the second Derby della Capitale between Roma and Lazio. Had Roma, 1-0 down at the time, lost, Ranieri might never have been able to show his face in the city again, but instead they came back to win 2-1.
"Ranieri didn't leave two players in the dressing room [at half-time] yesterday but Romulus and Remus," wrote Luigi Garlando in the next day's Gazzetta dello Sport. Marco Ansalda was more straightforward in La Stampa, saying: "It takes an absolutely giant pair of balls to pull Totti and De Rossi out of the biggest derby in years."
Marco Materazzi is the clear winner here, for the Silvio Berlusconi mask he donned after Inter's win over Milan in January, the "It didn't happen" T-shirt he wore after Inter sealed the title (Roma's fans had for months been touting banners reading "It won't happen, but if it happens ..."), and the "You want this one back, too?" T-shirt he put on after the European Cup win – a dig at Juventus's attempts to have Inter stripped of the 2005-06 title they were awarded after the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal.
Fabio Cannavaro's response to the last of those Materazzi fashion statements: "I won [the 2005-06] Scudetto on the pitch and I have the medal at home. He has a shirt."
The manner in which Lazio rolled over for Inter, with their fans threatening violence if they didn't, this month to help keep Roma from winning the Scudetto, was deeply unedifying. Nevertheless, it was hard not to chuckle when Inter inevitably did take the lead, and the home support began to unfurl a sign that simply read: "Oh nooo."
In 2008-09, on loan from Al-Sadd, Mauro Zárate scored 13 goals in 36 games for Lazio, drawing inquiries, if his brother and agent Sergio is to be believed, from some of Europe's biggest clubs. In 2009-10, after joining Lazio on a permanent deal for €20m, Zárate managed three in 32. Thankfully Sergio has since clarified that his brother's dip in form is entirely the fault of Lazio's manager Edy Reja. Which is a relief, because for a moment there we were under the misapprehension that Mauro had been similarly awful under Reja's predecessor, Davide Ballardini, early in the season, and might simply have been phoning in his performances ever since collecting his hefty signing bonus.
Honourable mention: Juventus. To think some so-called pundits thought they could challenge Inter, eh?
"I had to say something to my friend. Are you going to fine him, as well?" – Mario Balotelli tries to talk his way out of a €38 fine for repeatedly honking the horn on his car in a residential street at 1.30am.
"You're fat … like a wife" - Innocenzo Mazzini, then vice-president of the Italian football federation, dispenses with the formalities when calling Antonio Cassano to discuss the latter's prospects of an Italy call-up.
"After the first two questions, I know why Chinese football is so rubbish" - José Mourinho takes umbrage at local reporters asking why Lazio had dealt better with the heat in Beijing than Inter during the pre-season SuperCup.
Honourable mention: "We are tired of having to deal with careless Argentines and their scant professionalism" - Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis is unimpressed after Ezequiel Lavezzi becomes the second player in a month to return late from an Argentina international due to a misplaced passport.
"Roberto Donadoni is an adorable person" - De Laurentiis says goodbye to his manager in the most patronising way he can think of.
"We're going to lose 2-0. Many are certain we will win and that we are the favourites, but that is not the case" – the Palermo owner Maurizio Zamparini gees his team up for their home game against Milan. They went on to win 3-1.
When Lazio's president Claudio Lotito packed his team off for a punitive training camp at a hillside retreat in March, after they collected just a single point from five matches, he also decided to send the sports psychologist Daniele Popolizio along with them. The players immediately refused to speak to Popolizio, then went on to win their next game 2-0. If the man can do that without talking to a client ...
Livorno set new standards for organisational success ahead of their home fixture against Milan in September, when both Antonio Candreva and Romano Perticone had their names misspelled on the back of their shirts (as Cadreva and Petricone respectively). You could hardly blame the referee Daniele Orsato, in the circumstances, for questioning another player's identity, and kick-off eventually had to be delayed while team officials scurried back to their hotel to find the passport that their Brazilian midfielder Mozart had left behind.
Davide Lanzafame was given the opportunity to return to Juventus from his loan at Parma in January, with his parent club desperately short of wide players and forwards after a string of injuries. He said no.
The Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani proudly recounted how he persuaded Gennaro Gattuso to sign a contract extension with a lower wage, saying that when the player arrived in his office he simply produced a picture of the two hugging after the 2007 European Cup triumph over Liverpool in Athens. Of course, he had earlier tried a different tack. "I showed [Gattuso] the midfields of the five best teams in Europe and he wouldn't have been a starter for any of them," said Galliani. "Why go sit on the bench somewhere else?" And to think some questioned why they were giving the player a new deal in the first place …
"People here have got used to eating Nutella, and maybe every now and then they have to eat s**t" – Antonio Cassano responds to being booed by Sampdoria's fans.
"There are cretins in France, too" – the Juventus defender Jonathan Zebina reacts after being slapped by one of his own team's fans while boarding the team bus before a game against Atalanta in March.
And one final award for Mourinho to collect before he trots off to Madrid. "I never said I was a phenomenon," insisted the self-appointed Special One this month. Oh José, life just won't be the same without you.