When Samir Handanovic joined Inter last summer, the club's goalkeeping coach, Alessandro Nista, told him that his concentration levels would be tested more than they were at Udinese. But why? The thinking was that he'd have less to do; maybe two or three saves a game. "Some months later, I went up to Nista," recalled Handanovic, “and said, jokingly: 'I have to make five or six saves a game, not two or three.'" It became an in-joke. Handanovic, or Sandanovic as they call him, San meaning "Saint," has made some divine interventions during a hellish season for Inter.
Honorable mentions: Federico Marchetti, Gianluigi Buffon.
A surprise perhaps, but only to those who haven't watched Napoli a great deal this season. It says much about Hugo Campagnaro that he is an idol of the fans at the San Paolo even though he has allowed his contract to run down and seems likely join the Argentine colony at Inter. There have been no calls of mercenary or traitor. But then, Campagnaro has been a consummate professional. Consistent. Capable of bringing the ball out and picking a pass. If, as expected, he were to move to Inter maybe Handanovic would have only "two or three" saves to make a game.
One might say the first brick of the winning structure that Juventus have built was laid with the signing of Andrea Barzagli from Wolfsburg for €600,000 in spring 2011. Other low-cost or free transfers followed. Those of Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba. And another is to come in the form of Fernando Llorente. They represent good business. Barzagli was the best defender in Serie A last season, bettering Thiago Silva. He has repeated those performance levels this term. Strong in terms of concentration and positional sense, Barzagli is powerfully built, too. Is it any wonder they call him The Rock?
Serie A lost Thiago Silva last summer but they gained Marquinhos. Arriving on loan from Corinthians, he didn't take long to persuade Roma that the option they have to make the deal permanent in the summer isn't one to be passed up. Only just 19 and reportedly of interest to Barcelona, he has been to Serie A what Raphael Varane has been to La Liga, a center back of great prospect.
Honorable mentions: Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Mehdi Benatia, Maurizio Domizzi, Davide Astori, Mattia De Sciglio.
Another of Roma's exciting young South Americans, Erik Lamela had a bigger reputation than Marquinhos when he was signed from River Plate for £14.9M at the beginning of last season. After a year of adjustment, he has started to show his frightening potential. Speed, stamina, skill, goal scoring, Lamela struck in six consecutive games through October and early November, threatening the club record set by Rodolfo Volk more than 80 years ago. Counting 15 goals in 33 appearances in all, the 21-year-old has had a remarkable campaign.
Spend time thinking about this Juventus side and what defines it -- the work ethic, the pressing, the never-say-die attitude -- and you could argue that it's more in the image of Arturo Vidal than Andrea Pirlo. Strong in the tackle, good on the ball, a box-to-box runner, the Chile international gets so much so that his teammate Claudio Marchisio has quipped that sometimes it's like there are three Vidals on the pitch. He is a complete midfielder and has been the chief difference-maker this year for the champions. The club's joint top scorer in Serie A with 10 goals, his last one was the Scudetto-clincher against Palermo. Nearly all have been decisive.
One of the tactical talking points of this season in Serie A has been Fiorentina not playing a holder or a defensive midfielder, but a trio of passers instead. One of the reasons they can afford to is Borja Valero, a player who is both an artist and an artisan, a deep-lying playmaker not afraid to do the dirty work, a total midfielder. Borja is also proof after the flops in the '90s and early 2000s of Ivan Helguera, Ivan de la Pena, Gaizka Mendieta, Jose Mari and Javi Moreno that Spanish players can make it in Serie A.
First Ezequiel Lavezzi left. Now possibly Edinson Cavani. It looks likely that of Napoli's three tenors, Marek Hamsik will be the last one standing. Often overshadowed by those two, the Slovakian has shone brightly in this his best season in Serie A to date. Involved in 25 of Napoli's goals, Hamsik scored 11 and assisted 14. Already among the club's 10 all-time top scorers it's often forgotten that he is only 25 and has been a regular in the league for six years. A young veteran, Hamsik will be even more important to Napoli's cause next season.
Stephan El Shaarawy
A criticism of this choice might be Stephan El Shaarawy's second half of the season. The left-sided Milan striker and wide player has scored only twice, not enough perhaps to justify his inclusion in this selection. But if his team are in the Champions League today, a great deal of the credit is owed to him. El Shaarawy carried Milan on his 20-year-old shoulders in the first half of the campaign, scoring 16 of his 18 league goals to lift them out of the mire and into an improbable podium place. His work was uphill. If he tired, it was because he sacrificed himself for the good of the team, often playing as an auxiliary full back much like Samuel Eto'o used to for Inter under Jose Mourinho. Few players in Serie A deserve a summer vacation more than El Shaarawy does.
Honorable mentions: Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Pirlo, Hernanes, Antonio Candreva, Alessandro Florenzi, Paul Pogba, Roberto Pereyra Giacomo Bonaventura.
Antonio Di Natale
There could be no higher praise for Antonio Di Natale. “Before him there was Zico,” Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzo said. “Now he has replaced him in the fans' hearts because every year he does amazing things.” For a fourth straight season, Di Natale broke the 20-goal barrier in Serie A, a feat matched only by Gabriel Batistuta in the past half century. He has struck 103 times in the league during that time, a scoring rate bettered in Italy only by Gunnar Nordahl and Istvan Nyers between 1949 and 1953.
In Naples city center last week passers-by came across a cardboard cut-out of Edinson Cavani in a cage. A placard on the top read in local dialect: "Swear on your mother that you won't leave." It's not difficult to understand why Napoli fans feel the way they do about Cavani. The club's best player since Diego Maradona, he has broken record after record in his three seasons at the San Paolo. This campaign has arguably been his best. Cavani found the net 29 times in Serie A and became Capocannoniere for the first time in his career. Not bad considering he also experienced a 729-minute goal-scoring drought.
Honorable mentions: Francesco Totti, Gonzalo Bergessio, Marco Sau, German Denis, Rodrigo Palacio, Victor Ibarbo, Mario Balotelli, Innocent Emeghara.