A Champions League final spot and a thrilling season climax add to the optimism of a resurgence.
The Italian renaissance
An Italian team in the Champions League final? An Italian manager winning the double in one of the strongest leagues in Europe? The Italian championship producing the closest, most see-saw last-day-of-term finish of all the several down-to-the-wire climaxes that characterised the end of domestic schedules across western Europe?
By the look of all that, Italian football must be doing enough right to persuade even the severest of its critics that it is treading clear of what have been some difficult, uninspiring times. OK, so Inter Milan, the Italian team that have become the first Serie A contestant in a Champions League final since 2007, are not very Italian at all in as far as, from one to 11, Inter tend to include no actual Italians in the line-up.
And admittedly, the chief prize-winning Italian coach this season is Carlo Ancelotti, who needed to move to the English Premier League to clinch his first major trophy since 2007. But for last-gasp theatre Serie A trumped the Premier League, Bundesliga and Spain's Primera Liga, all of whom decided their championships on the final afternoons or evenings of the campaign. In England, Germany and Spain, the leaders stayed leaders through the 90 minutes; in Italy, Roma briefly overtook Inter before the familiar hierarchy was restored.
If Inter's fifth scudetto on the trot does leave Serie A open to a charge of a lack of variety, it should be said in favour of the champions that this was a new-look, distinct Inter. Their season began with the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their most significant player through the period that encompassed the 2007, 2008 and 2009 league championships. The fee Inter gained by his sale to Barcelona allowed the arrival of Samuel Eto'o, Diego Milito and Wesley Sneijder and they found a good harmony when it counted. No side had a more effective front trio in 2009-2010, as Inter outscored Roma, their closest pursuers, by fully 17 goals.
Inter had the meanest defence, too, thanks to the continued high standards of Julio Cesar, the evergreen intelligence and stamina of Javier Zanetti and the arrival of Lucio, an authoritative leader at centre-half. Their competitive edge was sharp, as the nine red cards accumulated in league and European outings testifies. Inter offered their usual excuse for not exactly dominating the fair-play rankings: "We won this league in spite of everyone," said Massimo Moratti, the club president, at Sunday's title celebrations. The authorities - referees above all - were often depicted as more serious rivals to Inter than any other clubs.
AC Milan missed Kaka, sold last summer, more than Inter missed Ibrahimovic. Juventus missed all sorts of absent ingredients, one of which began to look very like the head coach they had sacked in 2009: Claudio Ranieri. It was Roma's revival under Ranieri that made the league season exciting, notably when they won seven matches in a row and leapfrogged Jose Mourinho's Inter to the summit for a fortnight. But Serie A was also competitive to the end in other places that mattered. The battle for fourth position, and entry to the Champions League, also went to the final afternoon, Sampdoria holding off Palermo.
Nostalgics will be delighted to see Samp back in Europe's principal club competition, because it reminds them of the time Italian football was not just the most glamorous league in the world, in the 1990s, but showed it had a depth that reached down beyond Milan and Juventus and Inter, that a club like Samp were gifted and well-resourced enough to reach a European Cup final, as they did in 1992. This Sampdoria will not go that far, but they would hope to perhaps emulate what Fiorentina did in 2009-10, and confidently reach the first knockout round. Fiorentina were extremely unlucky not to go further in Europe.
It was good season for the south of the peninsula, too, the areas of the country where the cries of conspiracy about unfair officialdom are usually heard loudest. Newly promoted Bari finished in the top half of the table, while the islanders Catania and Cagliari eased themselves clear of their relegation fears well before the last weekend. Napoli will join Palermo in the 2010-11 Europa League, which means Italian will be spoken in some distinct accents across the continent next year. It may also be capable of the odd, real roar. @Email:email@example.com