Serie A 2018-19 season review: Juventus and surprise sides dominate

Cristiano Ronaldo during the Italian Serie A football match between A.S. Roma and Juventus at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, on may 12, 2019. (Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo during the Italian Serie A football match between A.S. Roma and Juventus at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, on may 12, 2019. (Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images) /

Juventus may have cruised to another title, but the real story was with the underdog clubs that achieved (and a big one that underachieved) this season.

A year after Juventus and Napoli gave us all the tightest title race among Europe’s biggest leagues, this season turned out to be completely the opposite. Juve, winners of their eighth straight, steamrolled to another title. Napoli, runners up once again under first-year manager Carlo Ancelotti, were never really in the race.

With the scudetto a forgone conclusion, the excitement this season could be seen further down the table. One had to look past Juve for some excitement and games that mattered. For example, the race to finish third and fourth (the final two Champions League spots) took up most of the interest in the second half of the season. Atalanta’s surprise season (more of them further down) and Inter Milan and AC Milan’s inconsistency (yes, we will also talk about them in greater detail) made for an unpredictable battle.

The Roman teams (Roma and Lazio) had largely disappointing seasons. Out of the title race early on, the Giallorossi struggled for large swaths of the year, while Lazio salvaged the season by lifting the Coppa Italia. The biggest disappointment, perhaps, was Fiorentina. The club that finished eight a year ago stared down the threat of relegation until the final matchday.

The league’s top scorer turned out to be Sampdoria’s 36-year-old striker Fabio Quagliarella, proving that even a player in the twilight of his career still had the stamina and guile to take on some of the best defenders in the world. Second on the scoring charts was Atalanta’s Duvan Zapata. After bouncing around three Serie A clubs (Napoli, Udinese and Sampdoria) the past five years, the Colombian forward found success in Bergamo.

Here’s a look back at some of the biggest winners and losers from the Serie A season this past season.

Best team: Atalanta

Dubbed the “Ajax of Italy,” Atalanta disrupted the hegemony near the top of the table, finishing third this season, the best finish in club history and higher in the table compared to even the most optimistic preseason forecast. Sure, they have zero trophies to show for it, but it was a great season nonetheless.

Juventus are by far the best and strongest team in Italy. They have the money and players that set them apart from the likes of Napoli and Inter Milan. Nonetheless, the Bergamo-based club should be praised for disrupting the natural order of things throughout the season, rewriting the script and engaging in a whole series of other cliche-sounding honors.

By April, Atalanta were a top four club. However, this team did not totally come out of nowhere. They had become known in recent years (along with Udinese) for producing youth players after heavily investing resources into their academy system. It paid off and Atalanta qualified for the Europa League last season. They will play in the Champions League next season for the first time ever.

Best (field) player: Krzysztof Piatek (AC Milan)

The 23-year-old Polish international played the first half of the season with Genoa and the second half with AC Milan after he signed with the Rossoneri during the January transfer window. Piatek emerged as one of Europe’s best scorers (he tallied 13 in Serie A this season), doing better than other Serie A stars like Mauro Icardi and Lorenzo Insigne. He is the future of this AC Milan club. So influential was Piatek that his arrival at AC Milan quickly helped the team climb the table, while his former club Genoa almost plunged into Serie B.

Is Piatek better than Ronaldo? No way. That’s not the point. Piatek proved himself valuable not just to one club this season, but two. He made Genoa and AC Milan better when he played for them. Ronaldo is a known quantity, Piatek was not. Good on AC Milan for snatching him up. Next season, however, will prove to be a real test for him. Piatek will need to replicate his form if he wants to help AC Milan achieve domestic and European success as well as etch his name as one of the club’s all-time best scorers.

Honorable mention: Duvan Zapata (Atalanta) 

Best (starting) goalkeeper: Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus)

Another Polish player was in the spotlight this season when the Juve goalkeeper conceded the least-amount of goals of any team in the top flight. True, he had a great defense in front of him, but Szczesny nonetheless came up big during the season. He may be one of the most-underrated keepers in the world.

Replacing Gianluigi Buffon was not an easy task. Yet Szczesny did so in stunning fashion, coming up big in key games and offering reliability in the back for a club known primarily for that very trait. Indeed, the Premier League’s loss was Serie A’s gain. Szczesny had spent 11 seasons with Arsenal (eight on the first team), but featured infrequently in league matches.

Honorable mention: Salvatore Sirigu (Torino) 

Best manager: Walter Mazzarri (Torino)

It would be easy to give this award to Juve’s Massimiliano Allegri, but it was their crosstown rivals Torino that had an above-average season given their roster and investments. Mazzarri has been one of Europe’s most underrated managers for some time.

Mazzarri’s success at Napoli nearly a decade ago cemented that reputation, but poor showings in subsequent years at places like Inter Milan and recently Watford didn’t help matters. His 3-5-2 formation helped Torino achieve much success this year. The team was a joy to watch (finishing seventh and just three points out of a Europa League spot) and another in a series of surprises the league offered up this season.

Honorable mention: Gian Piero Gasperini (Atalanta) 

Biggest underachiever: Fiorentina

It was an excruciating season for the Viola, although there are some bright spots as the club look to the future. A 13-match winless streak toward the ends of the season, despite having players such as the highly-touted Federico Chiesa in the lineup, put the team in heavy jeopardy of getting relegated. For a team that had a roster that could have contended for a Europa League spot and were eliminated in the Coppa Italia semifinals, Fiorentina were a huge disappointment.

Making matters worse, Fiorentina’s owners, the Della Valle family, appeared uninterested with proceedings on the field, which triggered massive protests from fans. Something radical needs to happen in Florence (where the team had to wait until the final matchday to ensure they would avoid relegation), otherwise they could see another bad year on the horizon.

Best Game: Juventus defeats Napoli 3-1

In a season where Juventus ran away with the title, the first encounter with rivals Napoli had heavy implications. It was touted, and rightfully so, as a massive match. By the time it was over, Juve had cruised to victory in a precursor of things to come.

The game, played last September, saw Napoli take the lead after just 10 minutes through Dries Mertens. His goal silenced the Allianz Stadium crowd. Mario Mandzukic, fresh off his wonderful World Cup with Croatia, leveled the score in the 26th minute. He scored another four minutes into the second half to seal the win. Juve added an assurance goal with defender Leonardo Bonucci 14 minutes from the end to close out the proceedings.   

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Best Ronaldo goal: Second one against Empoli

Serie A isn’t what it used to be when the world’s best all played there in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Nonetheless, the league continues to draw global attention and that renewed interest was increased this season with the arrival of Ronaldo from Real Madrid.

While true that Ronaldo was not signed so Juve could win the league again (the Champions League remains the larger prize), his presence helped ticket sales across the country and when it came to the selling of international rights to games. Juventus may be a big club with a storied history, but Ronaldo makes the highlight reels on YouTube. This strike against Empoli, who would ultimately be relegated, last October was just one fine example of the type of work he put in this season.

Biggest nuisance: Mauro Icardi (Inter Milan)

While Ronaldo was scoring goals, the Inter Milan striker was annoying everyone around him, including die-hard season-ticket holders. His refusal to play halfway through the season put the team in free fall and jeopardized any chance of trying to win the title. Icardi is a top talent, there’s no doubt about that, but his actions hurt the team this season as they tried to hang on to a top four finish.

Icardi had a big blowout with the manager Luciano Spalletti during the season and subsequently had to sit on the bench. In the meantime, his wife (and agent) Wanda Nara didn’t help matters by using her social media channels and appearances on TV sports shows to thrash Icardi’s teammates. In the end, Icardi may want to stay at the club. Expect Inter to sell him off this summer. The real question is who would want him on their team?