"Grazie Ragazzi." With those two simple words Gazzetta dello Sport bid farewell not just to a season but an era, heralding the final weekend of the Serie A campaign with a front page dedicated to the greats whose careers in Italian football appear to be at an end. Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, and Marco Di Vaio are among the names not expected to grace this stage again next year.
Tears were shed as they made their final bows, yet as much as Serie A will miss their presence it is also true that their roles were already becoming reduced. Of the aforementioned group, only two – Di Vaio and Del Piero – featured in more than half of their club's Serie A games this season. Nineteen of Del Piero's 23 league appearances were as a substitute.
Instead, this season's key protagonists have been others: Andrea Pirlo and Gigi Buffon at Juventus and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Milan. Hardly the sweeping youth movement some might have hoped to fill the void but there was encouragement to be found in that department too. More than half of Cesare Prandelli's provisional 32-man Italy squad for Euro 2012 are 26 or under, while foreign imports such as Erik Lamela and Luis Muriel were brilliant enough in patches to suggest bright futures ahead.
This, though, was a season in which Juventus re-asserted the power of the collective spirit over any individual talent. Around this time last year, the Gazzetta dello Sport writer Alessandra Bocci quipped: "Serie A is a tournament in which various teams compete. Then at the end Zlatan Ibrahimovic wins." But even a career-best return of 28 Serie A goals was not enough for the Swede to extend the run which had seen him finish with a league winner's medal in each of the previous eight seasons.
For all that Pirlo and Buffon were brilliant – performing at a higher level than either had achieved in years – Juventus's triumph owed as much to their team-mates. The defence were impenetrable, the midfield elevated by the tough-tackling dynamism of Arturo Vidal and the growing confidence of Claudio Marchisio. Up front every one of Alessando Matri, Mirko Vucinic, Fabio Quagliarella, Marco Borriello and Del Piero made telling contributions at different times.
The real star was instead Antonio Conte, the manager who at the end of his first season in charge is yet to experience a league defeat. "After three months of work you cannot talk about a finished house with the roof ready," he noted in October, reminding reporters that the foundations consisted of consecutive seventh-placed finishes. After 12 months on the job he would likely argue Juventus remain a work in progress, yet there is already a Scudetto on the mantelpiece.
If the contest between the relentless energy of Conte's Juventus and the showmanship of an Ibrahimovic-led Milan made for a compelling spectacle, then it was not always an edifying one. This was a season in which the two front-runners waged an endless war of words over perceived refereeing injustices – a situation not helped by the linesman Roberto Romagnoli's failure to spot that Sulley Muntari's shot had crossed the goalline during what eventually finished as a 1-1 draw between Milan and Juventus in February.
But they were not the only ones guilty of bringing Serie A's name into disrepute. A season which began with Atalanta being docked six points as the result of a match-fixing investigation would also witness a manager, Delio Rossi, punching one of his own players in the dugout, and a fixture between Genoa and Siena suspended as Ultras forced players to remove the shirts of which they were deemed unworthy. With 52 players and 22 clubs charged this month in the sporting trials stemming from further match-fixing investigations – and more expected to join them – further dark days are on the horizon.
This was a season marked by tragedy, too, Piermario Morosini's death during a Serie B fixture between Livorno and Pescara rocking the entire football community. Just six months earlier Antonio Cassano had collapsed on his way back from a Milan away game after suffering a mini-stroke caused by a congenital heart defect.
The sight of Cassano returning, and playing as though he had never been away, was thus most welcome – and especially for Milan. With Juventus enjoying the additional competitive and economic advantages brought by a new stadium, they are well positioned to embark on a fresh period of dominance. The Rossoneri, just like everyone else, need all the help they can get.
Pirlo will be the consensus choice here, and there is no question he was the signing of the season. His team-mate Buffon went further, describing the midfielder's arrival on a free transfer from Milan as "the deal of the century". Pirlo's 13 assists led the division, and regularly made the jaw drop. "When I watched him play, I thought: 'there is a God'," added Buffon.
Yet as outlined above, Juventus's triumph was about the collective far more than the individual. At Milan that was not the case; while the Rossoneri are not a one-man team, there is no question as to who was the leading man. The onus on Ibrahimovic was only increased by Cassano's absence, yet he responded with 35 goals in all competitions – more than either Andriy Shevchenko or Marco van Basten managed in their best campaigns. For that reason, he is my choice.
4 If you like stepovers, you'll enjoy this from Juan Cuadrado.
3 Sebastian Giovinco scored 15 goals this season for Parma – more than twice his previous best. None were quite as special as the opener against Siena.
2 There have been so many brilliant overhead kicks in Serie A this season they could have their own category. Simone Pepe's strike for Juventus against Lazio and Stefano Mauri's effort for Lazio against Napoli both made the shortlist, but the finest example of the genre this season was Davide Di Michele for Lecce against Parma.
1 Rodrigo Palacio celebrated his 30th birthday by scoring a goal so good against Lazio that most viewers required multiple viewings just to work out precisely what they had just witnessed.
Roma's Daniel Pablo Osvaldo's overhead strike against Lecce might have won the previous award outright – had it not been ruled out incorrectly for offside.
Supporters held their breath as Fabio Simplicio charged up into the stands following his goal for Roma against Napoli, fearing that his plan was to confront a critic. Instead he sought only to share the moment with his wife and son.
This award could easily go to Pirlo for any number of his wonderful floated assists this season, yet there was something impishly brilliant about Alessandro Diamanti's backheel through-ball for Marco Di Vaio During Bologna's game against Siena last December.
The season's second Derby della Madonnina had it all: spectacular coreografia, three penalties, scandalous refereeing, former team-mates squaring up and pulling faces, Wesley Sneijder oh-so-nearly scoring from the halfway line and then Maicon slamming home a winner that barely missed out on the goal of the season shortlist. The football was far from flawless, but with Inter's eventual 4-2 win ending Milan's title hopes once and for all, the action could hardly have been any more entertaining.
Honourable mention: Napoli 3-3 Juventus. Nobody came closer to ending Juve's unbeaten league run than Napoli, who twice led by two goals at Stadio San Paolo – despite Marek Hamsik missing a re-taken penalty.
5 – Different Inter managers Massimiliano Allegri has now faced in his five derbies as Milan coach.
102 – Days between Alberto Malesani's sacking by Genoa in December and his re-appointment by the same club in April.
20 – Days between Alberto Malesani's re-appointment at Genoa in April, and the club's decision to sack him again later the same month.
0 – Serie A games played by Palermo under the manager Stefano Pioli, who was appointed and fired by Maurizio Zamparini last summer before the season had even begun.
An award which can only ever go to one man. "I am eating my second testicle," said Zamparini after Palermo were beaten by a Bologna side managed by Pioli. "I already ate the first."
Palermo's match against Parma in December was reported to have finished goalless, but in fog like this nobody could be truly certain.
Gigi Buffon (Juventus); Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Thiago Silva (Milan); Christian Maggio (Napoli) , Arturo Vidal (Juventus), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Senad Lulic (Lazio); Sebastian Giovinco (Parma); Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Milan), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese).
Substitutes: Samir Handanovic (Udinese), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Nicola Legrottaglie (Catania), Dusan Basta (Udinese), Antonio Nocerino (Milan), Fabrizio Miccoli (Palermo), Edinson Cavani (Napoli).
In any other season Francesco Guidolin would be a shoo-in, for what he has achieved at Udinese is truly remarkable. A club whose first-team wage bill is the sixth-lowest in Serie A and roughly one-eighth the size of Milan's has no place challenging for a Champions League berth, and yet they have now claimed one for two seasons running. Despite selling Alexis Sánchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata last summer, despite losing Kwadwo Asamoah, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Mehdi Benatia during the Africa Cup of Nations and despite Mauricio Isla going down with a season-ending injury in February, they improved on last year's fourth-place finish.
Yet it is impossible to look beyond Conte in a year in which Juventus became the first side ever to go unbeaten in a 38-game season. Unless the league is to be expanded beyond 20 teams, it is an achievement that can never be surpassed.
Sarcasm and wit are the usual ingredients for an award-winner in this category, but this was the year in which all were outdone by the sincerity of a nine-year-old boy. "Could you win?" read the banner at Inter's fixture against Bologna in February. "Otherwise at school they will make fun of me. Thanks, Filippo."
If the banner did not have its desired effect – Inter losing 3-0 – it did earn Filippo an invitation to training two days later, where he received a formal apology from the players as well as a replica shirt. And if that does all sound too sickly sweet, then perhaps the response would make it worth your while. "Milan: keep winning," read a banner at Milan's game against Cesena a day later. "That way I can keep making fun of Filippo at school."
Honourable mention: amid the pandemonium of Juventus's title celebrations, one of the smaller striscione caught the eye. Beneath a picture of Del Piero, it simply said: "Thanks for existing".
Djibril Cissé developed many wonderful friendships during his short stay with Lazio – not least that with the club's eagle, Olympia. But none was quite as touching as the one he shared with fellow striker Miroslav Klose. "We never stop talking," he told reporters back in September. "Even in the shower."
Which Napoli supporter wouldn't want to be buried in this delightful team-branded coffin?
Alexandre Pato. "He's unwatchable. In fact, I always say he's not a real Brazilian. To think he listens to hip hop."
Honourable mention: Christian Vieri was not eligible for this award, having retired in 2009. But if he was …
Mario Balotelli stole the show with a bizarre cameo at Andrea Stramaccioni's unveiling as the Inter manager.
Honourable mention: Kevin Prince-Boateng became only the second player in Serie A history to score a hat-trick after coming on as a substitute, as Milan recovered from three goals down to beat Lecce in October.
"I like fireworks too, but I set them off in gardens or kebab stands. I never set fire to my own house" – Ibrahimovic offers his unique take on Balotelli's Manchester escapades.
When Adriano Galliani, Kia Joorabchian and Fifa agent Giuseppe Riso got together in January it wasn't just to discuss the future of Carlos Tevez. It was to split a cake the size of a small island.
Another gong for Ibrahimovic, whose exchange with the Sky Sport reporter Vera Spadini after Milan's 2-0 win over Lecce provided another insight into the forward's way of thinking. "What the f**k are you looking at?" he enquired as Spadini hung around after the conclusion of a bad-te mpered interview, hoping to clear the air with the player. "Go home and do the cooking."
Milan take note: if you're going to post photographic evidence 'proving' that a ghost goal should have been given, perhaps don't stick the word "unacceptable" right over the crucial part of the image.
OK, so technically it was a Champions League game, but how could these awards not contain mention of the spectacular Pacman-themed display put on by Milan's fans before the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Barcelona?
"You're a bunch of dickheads … I want to go back to making films. You're a bunch of shits" – Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis was so unimpressed with a fixture list which pitted his team against every team in the league twice that he immediately stormed out of the meeting at which it was revealed, unleashing a barrage of expletives as he went, before flagging down a stranger's moped and disappeared into the night.
Some people might have forgiven Ezequiel Lavezzi's girlfriend, Yanina Screpante, for lashing out after she was robbed at gunpoint in Naples – raging on Twitter afterwards that it was a "s**t city". De Laurentiis was not one of those people. "In a climate of recession I think you should not go around with a Rolex on your arm," he declared. "Maybe you are not yet Neapolitan enough."
After weeks of speculation over whether he could hold down the Palermo job long enough to 'eat his Panettone', Devis Mangia brought the Milanese Christmas cake to his press conference on 17 December and gobbled down a few mouthfuls for everyone to see. He was sacked two days later.
The Spanish newspaper put two and two together following a conversation with Melissa Satta in January, claiming that her boyfriend Kevin Prince-Boateng's thigh injury had been caused by too much sex. "We do it seven to 10 times a week, depending on his fitness levels and work commitments," Satta had informed them.
"Amauri will help this great team to write another important page in its history," declared the then Juventus director Jean-Claude Blanc in 2008. What he didn't specify was that it wouldn't be until four years later, Amauri's strike giving Fiorentina the unlikely 2-1 win at Milan which allowed Juventus to overtake the Rossoneri in the standings for the last time.
"When you speak of Italy across the world, people think of three things: the mafia, pizza and Milan" – ladies and gentlemen, the former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
Del Piero walks away from Juventus having won six Scudetti (or eight, depending on your perspective), the Champions League, the Coppa Italia, the Intercontinental Cup and the World Cup – as well as a host of lesser trophies. But if all that wasn't enough, this year he also added medical miracles to his repertoire. In February the player was credited with helping a 12-year-old girl, Giada, from Cosenza, out of a 15-day coma.
Giada's father, Francesco, had written to Del Piero explaining the plight of his daughter – who is a huge fan of the player. He responded by sending two messages – one audio and one video – in which he invited her to "wake up as soon as possible so you can come and watch our matches, come and see us and above all get to know us".
After an afternoon of being played the messages on loop, Giada woke up. Sheer coincidence? Perhaps, yet fully in keeping with the story of a man who has meant so much to so many. Ciao Ale, grazie di tutto.