"Serie A is a tournament in which various teams compete," noted the Gazzetta dello Sport's Alessandra Bocci as Milan stood on the verge of their 18th Scudetto earlier this month. "And then at the end Zlatan Ibrahimovic wins."
Milan's first Scudetto since 2004 will not be remembered as Ibra's triumph – although he was the club's joint-top scorer and leading provider of assists, this was a success for the collective, rather than of any individual – yet his arrival did fundamentally alter the Serie A scenery. Adriano Galliani, the Milan vice-president, had joked when he travelled to Barcelona in late August that he had as much chance of returning with "a young Brigitte Bardot" as with the Swede. With Ibra's subsequent capture came the belief that anything was possible.
Such belief was required to overhaul an Internazionale team whose hegemony over Serie A was unbroken since the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. So were a number of further astute signings, from Robinho to Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mark van Bommel. The cynic, of course, may argue that having Rafael Benítez in charge of the Nerazzurri did not hurt, either.
The Spaniard's reign already feels a distant memory, a foggy haze of injuries and rows over transfer policy, but while Benítez does not deserve to carry the can for all that went wrong in the early part of the season, it is clear with hindsight that he was the wrong appointment. Inter's champions needed a motivator but instead got a scholar. His previous with José Mourinho didn't help either, as club officials must have known deep down as they removed pictures of the Portuguese from the club's training base so as not to offend their new appointment.
Inter would be rejuvenated under Leonardo – closing from 13 points behind Milan at Christmas to within two by the end of March, before a resounding derby defeat – but this was a season in which others also had the chance to dream. Napoli's eventual third-place finish was unlikely enough for a side whose wage bill is less than one-fifth the size of Inter's, but for a few, heady, weeks this spring the stunning form of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and company looked as though it might be enough to carry them to their third-ever Scudetto.
Indeed, the two Milan clubs aside, this was a season for the underdog. Udinese, playing some of the most entertaining football anywhere in Europe and stole fourth, and last season's relegation candidates Lazio finished behind them only on goal difference. By contrast a Juventus side that had invested heavily once again in the summer finished outside the European places in seventh. Roma, Inter's most consistent competition since Calciopoli, found new owners at last, but could only limp to sixth.
At the bottom it was a similar tale, newly promoted Cesena clawing their way away to 15th despite their first-team squad that combined earned less than Ibrahimovic alone. Meanwhile Sampdoria, who had begun the season in the Champions League preliminaries, wound up going down.
The drama in Italy was not restricted to the pitch, either, with the early part of the season dominated by threats of strike action – eventually avoided with a new collective bargaining agreement – and the latter part by a TV rights negotiation that at one point saw Juventus threaten (admittedly not very convincingly) to withdraw from Serie A altogether. That argument is still ongoing, but should, in the end, lead to a deal that will increase the overall TV revenue brought in by the league.
There will, of course, be less money flowing into Serie A from the Champions League in future, as Italy's dwindling coefficient cost the league its fourth spot in Europe's top club competition for 2012-13. The road back from here will not be swift, but after the upheaval of Calciopoli the most important thing for the long-term health of Serie A has been the re-emergence of a domestic league that is both entertaining and competitive.
Indeed, in at least one sense Italian fans got more bang for their buck than followers of any of Europe's other top leagues, since the average game had the ball in play for 65.15 minutes – significantly higher than the corresponding figures for the Premier League (62.39), La Liga (61.48), or the Bundesliga (61.22).
With more than half of clubs expected to change manager this summer and a particularly busy transfer window anticipated, there is much uncertainty over the year to come. But before we put the year just gone to bed, we have some rather more important business to attend to: the second annual Bandini awards.
You could make a very strong case for Cavani, who has not only scored 26 league goals but also shown a rather handy knack for doing so at decisive moments late in matches, or indeed Antonio Di Natale, the league's top scorer for the second season running. But the award goes to Di Natale's Udinese team-mate Alexis Sánchez, whose pace, vision, movement and footwork have played a huge part in the transformation of the Friuliani from relegation battlers last season to fourth-placed finishers this time around.
This was a relatively dry year for Serie A – with a modest average of 2.51 goals per game – yet at times it felt like every one that did go in was a viable contender for this award. With that in mind I have expanded the shortlist from three to five – and have still left out some absolute belters.
5 OK, so he wasn't quite as far from goal as Michele Marcolini was when he struck for Chievo against Bologna, but Andrea Pirlo did manage to put his effort against Parma in the very top corner from the best part of 40 yards.
4 If you had to summarise Napoli's season in one goal, it would have to be Cavani's strike against Lecce. One second the Partenopei are on the back foot, defending on the edge of their area with the score 0-0 deep in injury time. The next they are celebrating a winner of breathtaking quality.
3 You will rarely see a more technically accomplished volley than that scored by Juan Manuel Vargas for Fiorentina against Udinese.
2 Catania's Ciro Capuano didn't feel the need to take a touch as the ball dropped out of the heavens and on to his left-boot 30 yards from goal...
1 You're on the floor, surrounded by three defenders, on the corner of the six-yard box. The keeper, less than a yard away, has perfect position between you and the goal. Chance lost? Not if you're Ezequiel Lavezzi.
Cesena's Emmanuele Giaccherini's incredible effort against Juventus.
It didn't even lead to a goal, but Josip Ilicic's backheel flick for Javier Pastore against Chievo was devilishly brilliant.
It might not have proved the springboard to a Scudetto that some hoped it would be, but Napoli's 4-3 win over Lazio really did have it all: seven goals, a hat-trick, a penalty, an own goal, red cards for both a player and a manager, and even a "ghost goal" – the referee Luca Banti waving away Lazio's appeals after Cristian Brocchi's shot had clearly crossed the line at 2-2. Several of the goals that did stand were really rather good, too (take your pick between Stefano Mauri's weave and outside-of-the-boot finish or Cavani's expertly judged lob. Oh, and in case that wasn't enough drama, the two team's owners had been involved in a punch-up during a league meeting just days earlier.
Honourable mention: Still recovering from their woeful start to the season, Udinese's improving form had not garnered too much national attention by the time they travelled to play Milan in early January. That changed rather rapidly after a 4-4 draw in which they led three times.
Emiliano Viviano (Bologna); Christian Maggio (Napoli), Federico Balzaretti (Palermo), Thiago Silva (Milan), Alessandro Nesta (Milan); Stefano Mauri (Lazio), Gokhan Inler (Udinese), Cristian Ledesma (Lazio); Alexis Sánchez (Udinese), Edinson Cavani (Napoli); Antonio Di Natale (Udinese). Subs: Christian Abbiati (Milan), Mauricio Isla (Udinese), Domenico Criscito (Genoa), Javier Pastore (Palermo), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Milan), Marco Di Vaio (Bologna)
A close call indeed, this one, but the award goes to Massimiliano Allegri – for ending Inter's run of Scudetti, for silencing those who questioned the appointment of a manager with no experience at such a big club, and most of all for doing things his way. When Silvio Berlusconi joked that his manager looked too scruffy in post-match interviews Allegri quickly smartened up, but when the owner tried to meddle in team selection, calling for the team to use all their attacking talents at once, he resisted – and was fully vindicated.
Very honourable mention: The work done by Francesco Guidolin at Udinese has been truly remarkable, and especially his handling of Sánchez. The Chilean was deeply sceptical at first about the manager's plan to convert him from winger into a trequartista, yet that move would prove possibly the greatest single managerial decision of the campaign.
"Boss, every time I try to slow down the muscle hurts," lamented Marco Borriello to his then manager Claudio Ranieri during Roma's 5-3 defeat away to Inter in February. Ranieri's response? "Don't slow down then."
So angry was the Palermo president, Maurizio Zamparini, with his team's 7-0 thrashing by Udinese in February, he gave each of his players a handkerchief with the scoreline embroidered into it. "When the blow their nose, they'll remember," he parped.
If you thought Alexandre Pato and Barbara Berlusconi had this one sewn up, think again. "In the days before games there is no sex, we play PlayStation," announced Mauro Zárate's other half, Natalie Weber, recently. "Then afterwards we make up for it." If that was more information than you really needed, you might want to look away now: "I use skin creams, perfumes and conditioners," declared Zárate as he explained his preparations for their forthcoming nuptials. "I will shave every hair off my body. I will look fantastic."
Gianluca Rocchi is our deserving winner, after he gave Cesena's Giuseppe Colucci his second booking during a game against Lecce in September ... for a foul committed by his team-mate Yuto Nagatomo (who, unlike Colucci, was not already on a yellow).
Scandalised by the decision to start scheduling TV games at 12.30pm on a Sunday, Parma's supporters decided to take direct action. At their lunchtime kick-off against Roma in October, just as the game was set to begin, thousands of fans all vented their displeasure by ... simultaneously beginning to eat the sandwiches they had brought with them to the game. Suddenly marching from a pub you were drinking in anyway to a match you were going to anyway sounded positively revolutionary.
Yuto Nagatomo dealt remarkably well with the spectacular number of silly and patronising questions thrown his way after he joined Cesena from Tokyo in the summer, but even he was a little taken aback when one hack opened an interview by asking: "Do you like football?"
"If we qualify for the Champions League I'll put on a miniskirt and dye my hair blonde," announced Lavezzi this month. For the record, we're still waiting.
Full marks to Gazzetta dello Sport for their magnificent visualisation of Rafael Benítez clutching a panettone – as they speculated as to whether he would keep his job long enough to enjoy the Milanese Christmas cake.
Adriano, who collected his third Bidone D'Oro (Golden Dustbin), awarded by Rai radio to the worst Serie A player of the year. To put that into context, nobody else has won the award more than once.
After winning his first Scudetto, Antonio Cassano will be glad that he decided to stick with football after all. "Three years ago I told myself it was time to start taking this job seriously," he noted back in September. "Or else go home and sell salami"
Milos Krasic lived up to his nickname with some fancy in-game footwork during the early part of the season, while Kevin-Prince Boateng wowed with his really rather good Moonwalk at San Siro after Milan sealed the Scudetto. But even better was Tiziano Crudeli's interpretation back in the TV studio.
Massimo Oddo played only seven games for Milan this season, yet managed to steal the show this year with his alcohol-impaired lap of the running track at Rome's Stadio Olimpico.
Yes, yes, so these are supposed to be Serie A awards, and Triestina were technically playing in Serie B this season, but this year's awards would be incomplete without at least some mention of the "virtual" fans at the Stadio Nereo Rocco. With a 32,000-seat home stadium and average attendances of fewer than 8,000 per game, the team's president, Stefano Fantinel, took the infamous decision to close down the Colaussi stand and cover the seats with a series of giant posters depicting supporters. Among the defences put forward for the decision was the suggestion that Fantinel's players liked the new arrangement. "The people who were in the Colaussi stand used to be the most critical ones," he observed. "Now they don't make a noise."
Honourable mention: "We did well to win in a hostile environment," noted the Juventus manager, Gigi Del Neri, after his team's 2-1 win over Brescia in March. Juventus had been playing at home.
Javier Zanetti played the 1,000th game of his career this month, when he turned out for Inter during their Coppa Italia semi-final second leg against Roma. There haven't been many bad ones along the way.
Honourable mentions: Francesco Totti deserves to be recognised here, too, after moving up to fifth in Serie A's all-time top scoring charts, as does Alessandro Del Piero after breaking Giampiero Boniperti's record to become Juventus's all-time leading scorer in Serie A. Indeed, Boniperti also deserves credit for his admirable honesty in receiving the news. "I am not a liar and I will tell you straight away that it annoyed me a little bit," he wrote in an open letter to Del Piero.
Marco Di Vaio kept Bologna afloat pretty much single-handed this year, whether it was scoring the goals that led to most of their wins, organising meetings with local businessmen to discuss a possible takeover as the team lurched towards bankruptcy, or keeping the players united through sheer force of personality at a time when they hadn't been paid for six months. No wonder the fans nominated him as the team's unofficial president.
"The team didn't play badly," grumbled Silvio Berlusconi after watching Milan lose to newly promoted Cesena at the start of the campaign. "The problem is that Milan often run into left-leaning referees." His whine might at least have sounded a touch more convincing if the referee in question, Carmine Russo, hadn't awarded his team a penalty – which Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed.
Juventus's supporters stuck the boot into their own team with extraordinary relish at times this season, but at least some of them had a sense of humour about it. "No Ruby tonight Silvio," read one of the striscioni on show at their game against Milan in February. "This is just an Old Lady."
Honourable mention: Genoa's own protest piece against the lunchtime kick-offs raised a chuckle. "You wanted to take away our passion," the banner declared. "Instead you took away our minestrone."
"[Cassano and I] got on immediately," noted Rodney Strasser after Fantantonio joined Milan in January "Even if I don't understand what he's saying when he speaks. And I speak three languages." Cassano's retort? "The next time you say you don't understand when I speak I am going to give you a punch," he joked, before being photographed in this rather unusual pose.
Oh come on, who else was it going to be? "I hope the Scudetto arrives," pondered Berlusconi earlier this month. "It could push some of our fans who weren't sure about voting [for me] to go out and do it."