The Final Word on Serie A Paulo Dybala leads Juve Atalanta surprise Milan struggle
It’s ironic that just as the national team hit rock bottom by failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years, the club game felt like it underwent a resurgence in Italy. This season in Serie A will live long in the memory.
It had everything. The best title race in Europe’s top five leagues which went back and forth until the end of April. Ultimately though, as Maurizio Sarri put it, the Scudetto was lost in a Florence hotel — his Napoli players should have gone to bed earlier instead of watching Juventus come back from behind and win the Derby d’Italia with a last minute goal. It broke them. Less than 24 hours later they lost 3-0 to Fiorentina and it was over.
Nail biting battles to qualify for the Champions League and Europa League broke out and went to the wire. As many as five teams were at risk of going down on the final day. Only Bologna seemed to drift through the season without any sense of purpose. Everybody else had something to play for.
There was tragedy too. The death of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori at the age of 31 left Italian football in a state of shock. His funeral and the first game at the Franchi without him were unforgettable. How Fiorentina reacted was remarkable. All of a sudden a young and inconsistent team grew up, winning six games in a row, matching the club record established in 1959-60. Off the pitch, the club made poignant gestures: Fiorentina announced that in addition to renaming their training ground after Astori, a trust has been set up to provide for his daughter Vittoria.
Another heartwarming story came in the form of Benevento who attracted derision after losing their first 14 games, but won a lot of new fans up and down Italy. The circumstances in which they claimed their first point against Milan with a stoppage time equaliser from goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli is the sort of moment supporters will talk about for years. “I just closed my eyes and dived,” Brignoli said.
This year Il campionato has made us laugh, it has made us cry, it has kept us on the edge of our seats. Next season has a lot to live up to.
Best player – Paulo Dybala
This is unlikely to be a popular choice because Dybala has blown hot and cold this season. At times he’s missed games through injury; in others he’s been left on the bench. His application was called into question by Juventus’ vice-president Pavel Nedved, and, for the most part, the team’s best performances came in his absence.
Which begs the question: how can he be the MVP when some are arguing he’s no longer indispensable to the Bianconeri? Simple: without Dybala, Juventus wouldn’t have won the title this season. He took the team on his shoulders in the early months while Massimiliano Allegri figured things out. He set up Higuain’s winner in Naples in December, which was massive because had Juventus lost they would have fallen seven points behind.
In March, he sent Napoli to the canvas again with his 94th minute goal against Lazio. Then, at the end of April, he was decisive as Juventus completed their incredible comeback in the Derby d’Italia and broke Napoli’s resolve once and for all. Dybala was the one to put the ball on Higuain’s head to clinch the win in the 89th minute.
It hasn’t been an easy year for him off the pitch and yet still it ends as his most prolific. Not since Giampiero Boniperti in 1949-50 had a Juventus player netted three hat tricks in a season. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio) and Alisson (Roma), who have been the most talked about players in the league over the last nine months, impressed. But Dybala is held to a higher standard than anyone else in Serie A.
Most disappointing player – Nikola Kalinic
Patrick Schick felt like the biggest letdown after generating so much excitement at Sampdoria last season, but there is sympathy to be found in his health issues, the price tag hanging like a millstone around his neck and the fact he missed pre-season at Roma.
Andrea Belotti had a tough year; Gianluigi Donnarumma showed flashes of his talent but the way in which he was handled did him no favours, turning the fans against him. But the biggest disappointment has to be one of Nikola Kalinic or Andre Silva. Milan blew €58m on them only for a no-name teenager from their academy, Patrick Cutrone, to eclipse them. Silva is young and obviously talented — and it was his first year in the league. Kalinic has no such excuse.
Best signing – Josip Ilicic
Luis Alberto was the revelation of this year’s Serie A, finishing in double figures in goals and assists, but technically he doesn’t qualify for this category as Lazio bought him two years ago; Douglas Costa left scorched earth wherever he played and from spring onwards changed games for Juventus with bursting pace and a staggering repertoire of assists; Hakan Calhanoglu emerged as the best piece of business from Milan’s €220m spending spree.
But the one that stands out though in terms of bang for your buck is Josip Ilicic’s move to Atalanta. A bargain around €5.5m, Ilicic had the best minute-per-goal ratio among midfielders in Serie A — better than even Milinkovic-Savic — and helped the team return to Europe for the first time in 26 years.
Biggest surprise – Atalanta
Of the teams qualifying for Europa League it’s usually the one with the smallest budget that suffers most. We’ve grown accustomed to them falling into the bottom half of the table and sometimes even scrapping to avoid relegation. So the sight of Atalanta backing up what they did last year and reaching the Europa League preliminaries is pretty extraordinary and of great credit to Gian Piero Gasperini and staff.
Must do better – Milan
Credit to Gennaro Gattuso for proving the doubters wrong. Milan reached a cup final and had the fourth best record in the second half of the season. Blame for Milan not qualifying for the Champions League does not lie with him. Nevertheless missing out remains a disappointment, especially when some within the club privately aspired to challenge for the title. FFP sanctions, big name sacrifices and ongoing uncertainty surrounding the owner are unlikely to make Gattuso’s job any easier.
Best goal – Marek Hamsik vs. Cagliari
There are better individual goals. Take Belotti’s bicycle kick against Sassuolo, Dries Mertens’ acute lob on the turn against Lazio, or Duvan Zapata’s coast-to-coast against Udinese. But as team goals go it’s hard to overlook Marek Hamsik’s in Sardinia which concluded a 17-pass move, involving all 11 Napoli players.
Best game – Inter 2-3 Juventus
Coming just a week after Juventus lost to Napoli in Turin, the champions were 1-0 up and had a man extra after just 18 minutes. Victory looked assured. But Juventus found themselves 2-1 down with three minutes remaining and should have had Miralem Pjanic sent off. Naples held its breath; the Old Lady seemed to be choking. But Juan Cuadrado and Higuain came to the rescue, leaving Inter on their knees and Napoli incredulous. Unable to pick themselves up, Napoli lost 3-0 in Florence the following day and the title race was over.
It already came true. Parma are back in Serie A in the quickest time possible. The Crociati are the first team in history to do the “triple jump” — the Olympian feat of three promotions back-to-back. Captain Alessandro Lucarelli followed Parma down to the fourth division and feels he can now quit after helping the club back to where it belongs. Mission accomplished.
Prediction for next season
If Sarri leaves and this Napoli team is broken up, the league needs Roma to replicate their Champions League form in Serie A and Inter to hit new heights under Luciano Spalletti. Otherwise Juventus may have it easier.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.