With Serie A's top five spots already decided, and the relegation battle complete, all eyes turned to the showdown for Europe
The Serie A season ended as these things usually do: with contrasting images of joy and despair. In one stadium, champagne bottles were uncorked and grown men were tossed up in the air. In another, an Italy forward wept inconsolably. His failure to convert a last-minute penalty had cost his team everything. Instead of sealing a triumphant sixth-place finish, Alessio Cerci had condemned Torino to disastrous seventh.
Rarely has the race for a Europa League berth seemed so very important. For years Serie A clubs have snubbed the competition – fielding weakened teams and crashing out early as a consequence. In the five seasons since Uefa rebranded its second-tier tournament, Italy have sent just two sides to the quarter-finals or beyond. That is fewer than Spain, Portugal, England, Germany or Holland. And only the same number as Russia, Switzerland or Ukraine.
Some teams do not really want to qualify in the first place. The Milan vice-president, Adriano Galliani, refused to answer questions about his team's Europa League prospects at one point earlier this year, saying that the very thought of the competition made him too sad to speak. He later insisted that he did want the Rossoneri to get in, but not everyone believed him.
After all, falling short would allow Milan to focus all their energies on the league next season – with more time to rest between games. It has not escaped the public attention that Juventus's first title under Antonio Conte arrived in a year when they did not have continental competition to worry about. The same goes for Roma's second-place finish this time around.
Regardless of Galliani's true feelings, Milan stayed in the race. They reached the last weekend of the season as one of four teams fighting for Italy's final Europa League berth. Torino occupied pole position, starting the day in sixth place with 56 points. Parma were just behind them on 55, while Milan and Verona each had 54.
With Serie A's top five spots already decided, and the relegation battle also complete, all eyes turned towards this four-way showdown. It was to be conducted at a distance, with no teams facing one another directly. The games were supposed to kick off concurrently, at 8.45pm, but wound up starting three or four minutes late.
The first goal arrived almost immediately. Running on to a pass 25 yards out, Milan's Sulley Muntari advanced to the edge of the Sassuolo penalty area before crashing a thunderous left-footed shot past Alberto Pomini. The Rossoneri were, in effect, now level on points with Torino.
A few moments later, Verona fell behind away to Napoli – José Callejón beating Nícolas Andrade at his near post. Very quickly, Hellas's challenge began to unravel. By 9.15pm they were realistically out of the equation, 3-0 down after conceding a further two goals to Duván Zapata. They eventually lost 5-1.
That left Torino, Parma and Milan still in the running. The Rossoneri scored a second goal midway through the first half, Nigel de Jong's deflected free-kick wrong-footing the hapless Pomini. That was how things stayed at the interval. The next twist would not arrive until 10.05pm, when Giuseppe Rossi swept home a penalty to put Fiorentina 1-0 up against Torino. For a brief moment, Milan moved up to the front of the pack.
But then Parma took their turn, Amauri coming off the substitute's bench to head home a corner against Livorno. He would score a second goal before the end, carrying his team to a 2-0 victory that eliminated Milan from contention. Torino, though, still controlled their own destiny. Beat Fiorentina and they would claim sixth place, regardless of what happened elsewhere.
They certainly made a go of it. At 10.15pm, Marcelo Larrondo prodded home from close range to bring Torino back level. The same player was found guilty of fouling a defender in the buildup to a disallowed second goal for his team just six minutes later.
As Torino threw everything forward, spaces began to open up at the back. Fiorentina took advantage, Ante Rebic blasting into the roof of the net at the end of a slick counter. But their lead would once again prove short-lived. At 10.32pm, Jasmin Kurtic slammed home a free-kick to make the score 2-2.
The stage was set for one last plot twist. In the third minute of injury time, Torino's Paulo Barreto went down inside the box. A penalty was immediately awarded.
Cerci stepped up to take it. It was a moment charged with significance, Torino's season resting on their forward's ability to score against his former club. He had been a divisive figure in Florence, adored for his talent but disliked for his sometimes disrespectful off-field behaviour. By the end of his time there, he had become the scapegoat for a team that was perceived as lazy and entitled.
But perhaps there were still one or two Fiorentina fans rooting for Cerci as he stepped up to the spot. A long-standing gemellaggio (twinning) exists between fans of Torino and Fiorentina, one which had already led to uneasy speculation before the game that the Viola – happily ensconced in fourth place – might not try as hard as they should.
Perhaps some of those thoughts were even rushing through Cerci's mind as he stepped up to take the kick. All we can say for certain is that his shot was struck poorly, close to the keeper at waist height. Antonio Rosati pushed it away, and within seconds the final whistle blew, signalling the end of Torino's European dream.
The fear for supporters is that they might not get close again for some time. They have far exceeded expectations this season under Giampiero Ventura, but keeping this squad together will not be straightforward.
The future of Ciro Immobile – who missed Sunday's game through suspension but nevertheless finished as Serie A's top scorer, with 22 goals – was already uncertain, and now appears even more so. Co-owned by Torino and Juventus, he has a long list of would-be suitors but the Granata had hoped to persuade him to stay and test his partnership with Cerci in Europe. That is no longer a possibility.
Instead, it will be Roberto Donadoni's Parma representing Italy in continental competition. The manager has certainly given his club plenty to celebrate in its centenary year, leading his team at one point on a 17-game unbeaten run, before eventually steering them to sixth place.
But amidst all the celebrations, he too remained coy over his future. Responding to questions about a rumoured switch to Milan, he replied: "Right now I must not fall into the usual trap of having to respond to all the things that other people are saying. I have a great, marvellous relationship here with the president [Tommaso Ghirardi] and [the general manager Pietro] Leonardi. We have always discussed things together and we will enjoy this great result."
That they most certainly did, celebrating at length in front of their fans. "Il sogno è realtà" read the T-shirts worn by the players, "the dream is reality". It remains to be seen whether they will remain so enthusiastic when that reality begins, with a Europa League third qualifying round first leg to be played as soon as 31 July.
• Antonio Cassano had his own custom T-shirt on display after Parma's win on Sunday, one that simply read "Buy Bari". The striker retains a strong connection to his former club, which has been effectively ownerless since April, when control passed from the Matarrese family – unable to pay its debts – into the hands of the public administrators. In the meantime, Bari have begun an unlikely push for promotion to the top-flight, winning seven of its last eight games. The club is available for as little as €2m up front, plus a further €1m to guarantee its (substantial) debts, but so far has struggled to attract an adequate suitor.
• Among the many subplots to Sunday's Europa League tussle was a surprise call-up for Milan's 15-year-old forward Hachim Mastour. Already a YouTube star with endless compilation videos to his name, this nevertheless felt like a big step for a player who was still a good seven months younger than Paolo Maldini had been when he made his debut for Milan back in 1985. But in the end, all the talk was for nothing – Mastour stayed on the bench throughout, as Milan won 2-1. Might we see him early in the next campaign? Perhaps. But at this point we still do not know if the man who called him up, Clarence Seedorf, will be around to do it again.
• Juventus completed their record-breaking season in style, beating Cagliari 3-0 to finish with 102 points. According to Gazzetta dello Sport, that is not only a record for Italy, but for any of Europe's top five leagues – Serie A, La Liga, the Premier League, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1. But the Bianconeri, too, must face up to managerial uncertainty this summer, with Antonio Conte refusing once again to make any promises. "Nothing has been decided regarding my future," he said at the end of the game. Earlier in the week he had laid out his concerns more thoroughly, saying: "The problem is that people here are expecting the Champions League right away. After the loss to Benfica, I was massacred in the press. What we have done up to now is practically unrepeatable. After three years like this, it can happen that you have a season in which you don't win anything, even because we are not ready for Europe, and I don't want to go from a hero to an idiot."
• This was the weekend when Internazionale bade their final farewell to four members of the 2010 treble-winning side. Much has been written (rightly) about Javier Zanetti, but Diego Milito, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso were also great servants to the club and wonderful players in their prime. Even Chievo's fans applauded them after a 2-1 win over the Nerazzurri on Sunday.
• One player who may or may not be back next season is Antonio Di Natale. The 36-year-old signed off for the season in style, scoring a hat-trick and hitting the woodwork during Udinese's 3-3 draw with Sampdoria on Saturday. He finishes this season with 17 league goals to his name, and has not yet decided whether to come back next year. "Right now I'm going to go on holiday and speak to my wife about it, then we'll decide together whether to carry on," he said. "I'm sad the season is over because I feel like I'm in good shape and good form."
Results: Catania 2-1 Atalanta, Chievo 2-1 Inter, Fiorentina 2-2 Torino, Genoa 1-0 Roma, Juventus 3-0 Cagliari, Lazio 1-0 Bologna, Milan 2-1 Sassuolo, Napoli 5-1 Verona, Parma 2-0 Livorno, Udinese 3-3 Sampdoria