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May 20, 2014

Serie A 2013-14 season review

So, the Serie A season concludes with Juventus winning their third straight Scudetto while Catania, Bologna and Livorno ended up suffering relegation to Serie B. With that in mind, James Horncastle wraps up another memorable year in Italy's top flight.

Best game: The "Wanda derby"

A number spring to mind. The first Rome derby, for instance; not for the standard of play, but rather for what it meant to Roma to avenge the defeat they suffered to Lazio in the Coppa Italia final at the end of last season. Just watch Balzaretti's tearful celebration after scoring the opener in a 2-0 win. Roma exorcised demons in front of us.

If by best game you mean spettacolo, it's hard to look beyond the encounters between Fiorentina and Verona. The first ended 4-3 at the Franchi, with four goals inside the first quarter-of-an hour. The second game was also a joy to watch, finishing 5-3 at the Bentegodi with Fiorentina coming out on top in both.

Also particularly memorable was the Wanda derby between Sampdoria and Inter in April. Maxi Lopez faced Mauro Icardi for the first time after his former teammate had gone off with his ex-wife, glamour model Wanda Nara. Inevitably it became all about them. Maxi missed a penalty. Icardi scored twice and provocatively went under the Gradinata Sud. Unforgettable.

Player of the year: Carlos Tevez, Juventus

Up until his injury at the beginning of the 2014, my vote for Player of the Year would have gone to Giuseppe Rossi. Many had wondered whether he would be the same player for Fiorentina that he had been for Villarreal after 18 months out and a series of knee surgeries. The striker's answer was emphatic. Rossi scored 14 goals in 18 league games and at the time, he was Capocannoniere (the league's top scorer) by a distance. His hat-trick against Juventus had brought Fiorentina their first win over their rivals at the Artemio Franchi since the winter of 1998. It was one of the moments of the season. He'd make it back before the end of the campaign and score twice in his final four league games, thereby ending the year on 16 in Serie A.

Rossi's total was only three goals short of Carlos Tevez's even though he spent four months on the sidelines. El Apache, however, has been universally lauded as the Player of the Year in Italy this season.

It was often said that Juventus were missing a 20-goal striker -- they got one in Tevez and his impact was immediate. He scored in his first three games, including the Italian Super Cup and ended his first campaign in Italy on 21. But with "Carlito" it's never just about the goals. It's about his all-round contribution, his eight assists, his hustle and bustle. Like Arturo Vidal, he is the personification of Conte on the pitch. It's just a shame that he won't be at the World Cup.

Young player of the year: Domenico Berardi, Sassuolo

Discovered while playing 5-a-side during a visit to see his brother, a student at the University of Modena, Berardi made headlines around the world when he became the second youngest player ever to score four goals in one game in Serie A. That it came in a stunning 4-3 victory against AC Milan and brought about the dismissal of Massimiliano Allegri only added to its lustre.

It wasn't just a flash in the pan, either. Berardi had conjured a hat-trick before away at Sampdoria and he would do so again at Fiorentina to keep Sassuolo up. To add a layer of perspective, only Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez scored as many triplette as he did across Europe's top five leagues this season. And to think Berardi is only 19; for him to find the net 16 times in his first year in Serie A is staggering.

Other teenagers deserving of a mention are Lazio's Keita Balde Diao and Simone Scuffet, the Udinese goalkeeper who like Gigi Buffon made his debut at 17 and has two "Fs" in his name... like Buffon and Dino Zoff. They'll both be ones to keep an eye on next season.

Best signing: Ciro Immobile, Torino

"No one was willing to bet a euro on him [last summer]," insisted Torino director of sport Gianluca Petrachi. No one except Torino, that is, who paid Genoa 2.5 million euros to co-own Ciro Immobile with Juventus. After scoring 28 goals in 37 games to get Pescara promoted the season before last, he had underwhelmed in his first campaign as a regular in the top flight. Five goals in 38 games was a poor return.

Maybe Serie B was Immobile's level -- that's what Genoa and other clubs thought. They were horribly wrong. Immobile went on to become Capocannoniere in Serie A, hitting 22 goals in 33 appearances for the Toro. He broke the club's single-season scoring record set by Paolo Pulici in 1976 and matched by Francesco Graziani in 1977.

Immobile's partnership with Alessio Cerci evoked memories of the great "goal twins," Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini. The most lethal duo in the league, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli might be tempted into playing them together at the World Cup. Other notable signings that paid off were those of Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens and Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli, Luca Toni, Juan Iturbe and Romulo to Verona, and Mehdi Benatia, Gervinho and Kevin Strootman to Roma.

Worst signing: Alessandro Matri, Milan/Fiorentina

Milan can't say the ultras didn't warn them. Before the second leg of their Champions League play-off against PSV Eindhoven back in August, they unfurled a banner that read: "A defence and midfield to reinforce. That's all you should be thinking about. Matri, no grazie." Instead 11 million euros was spent on him. When you consider that Milan are a club where money is tight, to invest that kind of figure on Matri -- and for it to fill Juventus's coffers who had bought Tevez for only 9 million euros -- was absolute folly on Max Allegri and Adriano Galliani's part as Matri scored just once in 18 appearances before being sent out on loan to Fiorentina.

Other flops include Keisuke Honda, the 13 million euros (plus 2 million in add-ons) Juventus paid Torino for Angelo Ogbonna -- though that could yet come good -- the deal Inter did for Ishak Belfodil and Bologna's purchase of Rolando Bianchi as a replacement for Alberto Gilardino or Manolo Gabbiadini.

Best manager: Antonio Conte, Juventus

There have been some outstanding candidates this season. Take Rudi Garcia, for instance. Roma were in the depths of despair when he arrived and because of that, the Frenchman modestly claims, his job was easy as the only way was up. But Garcia is downplaying his impact because working on that bench is never straightforward.

He improved Roma vastly. They took 23 more points, scoring only one more goal but conceding 31 fewer than they did last year. To open the season with 10 straight wins -- a Serie A record -- was a remarkable feat. To be so consistent over the year was too. Their points total of 85 would have been enough to claim the Scudetto in five of the last six campaigns. That Roma didn't is down to the extraordinary work of Antonio Conte at Juventus.

The only reason for not handing him the Coach of the Year award is "Conte fatigue." He has won it the past two years: why not give it to someone else? Well, because you can't ignore the records he has broken this season. Juventus became the first team in Serie A history to break the 100-point barrier. They were perfect at home, winning all 19 of their league games. It has been a historic season and, like Conte says, it will be difficult if not impossible to improve upon.

Other honorable mentions go to Roberto Donadoni for taking Parma on a club record 17-match unbeaten run and returning them to Europe for the first time in a decade -- providing UEFA grant them a license. After Roma, the other most improved team in the league was Torino. Giampiero Ventura was a missed penalty away from taking the Granata back into Europe 20 years on from their last game, a Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final with Arsenal. Andrea Mandorlini deserves great credit too. After leading Verona to two promotions in three years, he did more than just keep them up. Mandorlini had the Gialloblu in the European places for much of the season. Remember they were in fifth until mid-February.

And last but certainly not least, recognition is owed to Eusebio di Francesco for ensuring that Sassuolo survived while also developing some promising young Italians.

Biggest disappointment: Milan

Third a year ago, the expectation given how strongly Milan finished last season was that though maybe not title contenders, they would still be competitive enough to qualify for the Champions League. Instead it was a year of discontent. Fans protested. Barbara Berlusconi challenged the power of Adriano Galliani. Max Allegri got the sack. Clarence Seedorf brought forward his retirement as a player and became coach only to find himself on the brink of dismissal a couple of months into the job. Milan concluded the campaign in eighth. They're out of Europe for the first time in 16 years.

Historians will tell you that they won the league the following season. It's a hope to cling to, as is the promise of Hachim Mastour. But a big summer awaits Milan. They need to decide whether or not to retain Seedorf. If they were to fire him, what route should they go down: youth (Filippo Inzaghi) or experience (Luciano Spalletti)? A clear and unmuddled recruitment strategy is required. Milan don't have the resources of old but that doesn't mean they can't get creative.

Best moment

Javier Zanetti's farewell to San Siro was deeply moving. So too was the last tango of Inter's Argentines at the Bentegodi a week later. The "Asado clan," as they are sometimes referred to, have been the heart of the second "Grande Inter." Their exit from the scene either to move upstairs or to go elsewhere having not received a contract renewal leaves a huge leadership vacuum at the club. One of them, almost certainly Esteban Cambiasso, would have been the next in line for the captain's armband following Zanetti's retirement. And so to whom will they give it now [Hernanes or Andrea Ranocchia]? And how will they go about replacing such legends?

Make no mistake about it; that will be one of the toughest challenges facing Inter this summer.

Biggest surprise: Hellas Verona

Back in Serie A for the first time in 12 years, no one seriously thought that this season would be anything other than a fight against relegation for Verona. Instead they were a revelation. Their opening day win against Milan really set the tone for the campaign. Had it. Past it. Over the hill. Luca Toni scored twice. Another 18 would follow over the course of the season. Only once has the 36-year-old had a better year in Serie A and that was when he won the Golden Boot at Fiorentina in 2005-06.

But Verona's success wasn't down to Toni alone. Jorginho emerged as one of the brightest deep-lying playmakers in Serie A. When he was sold to Napoli in the winter, the versatile Romulo filled in and did well enough to earn a place in Cesare Prandelli's provisional Italy squad. Juan Iturbe also reminded everyone why he was once thought of as the next Lionel Messi. Smart recruitment, good coaching; Verona are a model to follow. Relative to their resources and where they came from, their season has been quite remarkable.