Serie A Team of 2011
As the year draws to a close, it presents us with an opportunity to look back on the players who have made the headlines throughout 2011. Due to the way football seasons are structured, this idea, much like the Ballon d'Or, is slightly flawed in that it often rewards players at what is effectively half-time in their campaign. On the other hand, however, it offers us the chance to reward consistency and to reflect on the players whose influence has not waned at the start of the new term.
One example of a Serie A player who has faded dramatically is Milan's Mark van Bommel: vital to the Rossoneri in the second half of last season following his January arrival, he has contributed little this term and finds himself on the periphery of Massimiliano Allegri's team. As such, he does not warrant inclusion in this selection as some of his contemporaries have picked up where they left off, and for them it's like the summer break never happened. Here's our ESPNsoccernet XI of 2011 playing a 4-3-3 formation.
GK - Samir Handanovic (Udinese)
While Gigi Buffon is seemingly back to his best, Maarten Stekelenburg has been perhaps Roma's best player to date and Federico Marchetti has recaptured the form that saw him become Italy's second choice 'keeper little over a year ago, Udinese shot-stopper Handanovic has been simply sublime. Following on from last season, when he equalled a 62-year-old record for most penalties saved in a campaign, Handanovic has ten clean sheets in his first 16 outings this term and is a major reason for the defensive stability that has kept Udinese at the top end of the table.
RB - Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus)
The right-back needed since Lillian Thuram moved into central defence seven years ago, Lichtsteiner has rid Bianconeri fans of nightmarish memories of Jonathan Zebina, Zdenek Grygera and Marco Motta with a level of performance that has been consistent and impressive in equal measure. Rarely out of position, the Switzerland international has also contributed regularly to attacking play and netted the first official goal at the club's new stadium.
CB - Thiago Silva (AC Milan)
Ultra-reliable, the Brazilian has been the rock on which Milan's hopes for the season are constructed. Calm in the tackle, assured on the ball and powerful in the air, Thiago is everything Allegri could ask of a central defender. He can cover for the lapses of others, such as when he is paired with Daniele Bonera, and is a brilliant partner to Alessandro Nesta when the veteran is fit. Almost flawless thus far.
CB - Lucio (Inter Milan)
While Inter have floundered at the wrong end of the table, the former Bayern Munich man has been as solid as ever. A huge reason for the string of clean-sheets that Inter amassed leading up to the winter break, Lucio's timing, reading of the game and breaks from deep are essential to the recent resurgence of the Nerazzurri under Claudio Ranieri. He and Brazil team-mate Thiago Silva were pushed hard for places in our line-up by Edgar Barreto, Mehdi Benatia and Andrea Barzagli.
LB - Stefan Radu (Lazio)
Hailed as 'the new Chivu', the Romanian has been as unlike his compatriot as it is possible to be. Where the Inter man has been a liability, costing his team goals and looking like he has spent a year too long at the top, Radu has thrived in Rome. Naturally a central defender, he has ensured Lazio have barely been affected by the sale of Aleksandar Kolarov on the left and has worn the captain's armband on a number of occasions.
CM - Claudio Marchisio (Juventus)
Undoubtedly helped by an almost perfectly blended midfield in Turin, Marchisio has nonetheless managed to shine even brighter than new arrivals Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal. While his team-mates have been thoroughly impressive, the Turin native has been simply outstanding. His runs from deep have linked defence and attack perfectly and his endeavour has, allied to the similarly tireless Chilean Vidal, been a major factor in the success of Antonio Conte's relentless pressing style.
CM - Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan)
A contender for transfer of the season, his €500,000 move from Palermo looks like an absolute steal. Adding much-needed energy, passion and grit into a previously staid Milan midfield, he has picked up the fiery baton laid down by Gennaro Gattuso while also chipping in a career-high six goals, making him the club's top scorer from open play.
CM - Daniele De Rossi (Roma)
Amid talk of everything in Roma being new, as Luis Enrique's revolution leaves behind the Giallorossi's past, De Rossi looks even more of a throwback than he did before. He is the club's best tackler and passer, slotting into central defence when required - both starting games there or dropping in as play evolves - without skipping a beat. The Italy international embodies everything good about the new-look team around him, while also representing everything his city holds dear. A true flag-bearer.
FW - Antonio Di Natale (Udinese)
If De Rossi is Roma personified then Di Natale is undoubtedly the beating heart of Udinese. The Naples-born striker has continued his blistering goalscoring form of the last two seasons, firing his team once more into the Champions League places despite having a knee injury that prevents him from training properly during the week. On the wane, but still a decisive player for the Zebrette.
FW - German Denis (Atalanta)
Perhaps the most surprising name on the list, the Atalanta striker has bagged more than 50% of his team's goals and helped them overcome the six-point penalty with which they began the season. Vital to the Bergamo side's push to stay in Serie A, he leads the league in scoring despite never previously having reached double figures on the peninsula.
FW - Zlatan Ibrahimovic (AC Milan)
Having passed the 100 Serie A goals mark, at a rate of better than one every two games, Zlatan has been as impressive as ever this term. He thoroughly enjoyed scoring a wonderful goal against former employers Barcelona in the Champions League and has continued to lead the line for Milan as only he can, forming a spine, along with Thiago Silva and Nocerino, which is unrivalled anywhere in Italy.