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Serie A Season Review: Glory for Romelu Lukaku, Inter Milan

Lukaku’s best season in his career helped Inter to a long-awaited league title. Juventus, meanwhile, are turning to a familiar face to reclaim their dominance.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Inter Milan manager Antonio Conte went out on top, leaving the club after winning the title comfortably, powered by Romelu Lukaku’s 24 goals. Here’s the best from the 2020-21 season in Italy:

Player of the Year: Romelu Lukaku, Inter Milan

Watching Lukaku weep as he celebrated Inter Milan’s first Serie A title in 11 years reminded us that this was not only the end of a long journey for his club but the culmination of a grand quest for the Belgian forward. At the start of this season, Lukaku, despite having scored over 300 goals for five different clubs and his country, still had only one senior trophy to his name, the national title that he had won in 2010 with Anderlecht. He ended last season with one of his greatest misfortunes as a professional, an own goal to decide the Europa League Final in Sevilla’s favor. This season, he shared the city and the stadium with one of the best AC Milan teams in several years, whose attack was led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a man for whom he had a deep and mutual loathing. Lukaku also had his challenges at the edge of the field, with racist chants punctuating several of his performances. Faced with all of that, Lukaku excelled. He formed a superb partnership with Lautaro Martínez, with the Argentine international scoring 17 times in 38 games. Meanwhile, Lukaku found the net 24 times in 36 matches; his crowning glory probably came in the 3-0 win in the Milan derby, a victory he sealed with one of the goals of the season—a turn, surge, and strike as elegant and devastating as almost any that the fixture has seen in its long history.

Spirit of the Year: Lorenzo Insigne, Napoli

This season in Serie A was typified by narrowly unrewarded brilliance: Atalanta, Napoli, and Sassuolo, the three teams that consistently entertained us the most, ended up without the prizes that their efforts perhaps deserved. Atalanta succumbed in the final of the Coppa Italia to Juventus, while Sassuolo and Napoli missed out on Champions League qualification on the final day of the season. That’s why the 2020-21 Spirit of the Year has to be Lorenzo Insigne. In a season when Napoli lost Diego Armando Maradona, their greatest idol, Insigne showed again why he is one of his club’s modern greats. He scored 19 times in 35 matches, including one of the most poignant celebrations in many a year when, the first game after Maradona’s passing, he scored a majestic free kick and then ran to the touchline, holding a shirt bearing Maradona’s name up to the television cameras. Every so often, football produces moments that resonate far longer than trophies ever can, and Insigne did that.

Manager of the Year: Antonio Conte, Inter Milan

The man who has transformed or restored so many players to their former selves should forever be known as “the calcio whisperer.” There is a staggering list of players who arrived at San Siro in need of revitalization and perhaps even repair: Lukaku, Ashley Young, Alexis Sánchez, Matteo Darmian, Christian Eriksen. One by one, Conte coaxed strong appearances from them. As usual, he built his team upon the foundation of a fine defense and relied primarily upon the emergence of Nicolò Barella and the resurgence of Eriksen for creativity in midfield. The only sadness for Inter is that Conte has now left the club since he was not sure his squad would get the investment it needed; he has departed almost as swiftly as he arrived two seasons ago. Perhaps that was to be expected since he never spends much more than a couple of years in any position: Intense as a sandstorm, he works himself and his players far beyond ordinary limits. Yet consecutive top-two league finishes, as well as that aforementioned Europa League Final appearance—Inter’s first in a continental contest since they claimed the 2010 UEFA Champions League—represent an excellent return on investment for the club’s owners. Though Conte will doubtless not be short of job offers, it is a shame that he will not get to continue his work with Lukaku, with whom he shared a rare bond and who penned him a moving farewell on Instagram. It’s unusual to see that depth of affection for a departing manager, and it speaks volumes of the atmosphere of respect and mutual sacrifice that Conte managed to create in such a short time.

Game of the Year: Atalanta 4, Napoli 2

A match between the two most consistently exciting teams in the league delivered—eventually—on all expectations. The first time these teams met this season, Napoli delivered a signature performance, scoring four times in the first half without reply on their way to a 4-1 win. Atalanta would duly get their revenge in some style. Those of little faith may have changed the channel while the game was still goalless in the first half, but Atalanta’s incessant attacks and the ejection of their coach Gian Piero Gasperini for dissent hinted at the chaos to come. Atalanta scored through Duván Zapata seven minutes after halftime and thereafter we saw a breathless procession of thrills and even brilliance: a rousing counterattack ended by Robin Gosens, an exquisite volley from Piotr Zieliński, a sensational solo strike by Luis Muriel, an own goal from Gosens, and then a header to clinch the game for Atalanta by Cristian Romero. The match saw six goals in the space of 27 minutes. It also gave fresh urgency to two principles for deciding which games to follow in Serie A: One, you should always watch Atalanta, and two, you should never ignore Napoli.

Biggest Surprise: AC Milan

Milan were a fairly young side impressively coached by Stefano Pioli. After finishing sixth last season, Milan emerged as the main title challenger to their city rivals Inter in 2020-21. When they faltered for a crucial couple of months late in this campaign, they attracted some criticism, but in truth, they were due such a stumble: It’s more that their excellent start raised expectations to an unsustainable level. This was a tremendous campaign. They had to contend with the significant absence through injury of Ibrahimovic and the growing pains of Sandro Tonali, a superb midfielder signed from relegated Brescia who never truly found his rhythm. At various points, they received stellar showings from their midfielders and Franck Kessié, their attackers Rafael Leão, Brahim Díaz, and Jens Petter Hauge, and their enterprising left back Theo Hernández, who helped himself to seven goals and five assists. There is plenty for fans of the Rossoneri to look forward to next season.

Biggest Disappointment: Lazio

Compared to their previous campaign Lazio had a disappointing season, but one of the main reasons for that speaks to the moment that we are in. COVID-19 hit them harder than most. In March 2020, Serie A was suspended with Lazio just one point behind league leaders Juventus: This season, when we might have expected them to launch a title challenge, they finished 23 points behind champions Inter and 10 points away from the Champions League places. They started this season in striking fashion, beating Borussia Dortmund 3-1 at home in the Champions League, but then the entire squad was placed in quarantine after several positive tests for the coronavirus. It was difficult to maintain any kind of consistency under such conditions. The club could and should have taken far better precautions at certain points—they allowed three players to attend training after receiving positive coronavirus tests, and they also twice fielded asymptomatic players who should have been isolating. As a result of these breaches of COVID protocols, two of their club doctors were banned for a year, they were fined €150,000 (later increased to €200,000) and club president Claudio Lotito was banned for seven months—which was later increased to a year. When football historians look back over this league table and wonder why Lazio’s performance dropped so dramatically, they should know that many of the problems began beyond the field of play. Given the departure of coach Simone Inzaghi straight after the end of the season, it is anyone’s guess which direction the club will now take.

Biggest Question This Summer

With Massimiliano Allegri returning to Juventus following the dismissal of Andrea Pirlo, the key question seems to be whether they will again become a dominant force in the division. It’s unclear whether Cristiano Ronaldo will return to the club after two seasons in Turin. There is a sense that AC Milan outdid themselves and that Inter Milan may have a drop-off after the departure of Conte: The stage is very possibly set for the Old Lady to reclaim her title. Time will tell whether they and Atalanta, who perhaps lack the squad depth to compete with a newly galvanized Juventus, are innovative enough to resist.