By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
Even before he took a couple of paces towards the ball, you just knew something special was about to happen. Andrea Pirlo's stunning free-kick put Sunday's game beyond Atalanta and ensured that Juventus will end 2012 at the top of Serie A. It is the only fitting place for the Italy midfielder to spend the winter break after a calendar year of magnificent proportions.
A team who had finished seventh in the league in consecutive seasons has been transformed since Pirlo's arrival from AC Milan in 2011, and the last 12 months have been the best of his career. Since January, he has scored nine goals and laid on another 22 in 61 games for club and country. For a player whose starting position is so far removed from the opposition goal, that assist rate is a phenomenal record, and outlines just how much he adds to the Bianconeri.
But Pirlo has always been a bit different. His switch to a role at the base of midfield while under former coach Carlo Ancelotti at Milan sparked many a copycat move by trainers around the globe, but nobody has been able to reproduce his form in the role. His consistent quality has helped to make him one of the most loved and respected footballers in the game, and many now consider him to be one of the best technicians never to have been seriously considered for a Ballon d'Or at any stage of his career.
ANDREA PIRLO'S PHENOMENAL 2012
Pirlo | Nine goals and 22 assists in 61 games
Having never come any higher than fifth place in the race for the world player of the year accolade, this should arguably have been his time. He should have been in the top three at the very least.
As the basis for a pressing game that has made Juventus into an attacking monster few have been able to tame, Pirlo has taken the side onto two whole new levels, first domestically, and then in the Champions League. Served by the legwork of Arturo Vidal and assisted by willing runners Claudio Marchisio, Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner, he is nothing less than the Serie A champions' focal point. At the hub of far too many Juve goals to mention, he is the irreplaceable heart of the side, as proven by Antonio Conte's reluctance to rest him despite the hectic nature of his calendar of late.
He was also the guy driving Italy around the park as they confounded a huge number of pundits to reach the Euro 2012 final, and then when the Azzurri needed to get their World Cup qualifying campaign off to a decent start, Pirlo was the man who got them going again. Carrying his Juventus form into the international arena, he had rediscovered the touch that had previously made him such a widely regarded footballer's footballer.
And yet this has been no ordinary year, even for a player who was spectacular in 2006, when he became a world champion with Italy, and in the seasons ending 2003 and 2004 which led to him being crowned as a king, first of Europe and then of the Bel Paese. Pirlo's 2012 has topped even those outstanding years, and while the Ballon d'Or awards ceremony will not feature the 33-year-old, that cannot take away from what he has achieved in the past 12 months.
So when the prizes are handed out at Fifa's big gala next month, worry not over Pirlo's absence. Instead, simply raise a glass to a legend who has outdone himself once more. Just ask Juventus and Italy fans if they need him to have a golden ball under his arm in order to appreciate his magnificent contributions of the last 12 months.
- Miroslav Klose's late winner saw Lazio come up trumps against Inter on Saturday night to continue the Nerazzurri's recent misery. While victories over Palermo and Napoli appeared to have put Andrea Stramaccioni's men back on track, their loss at the Stadio Olimpico was a reminder that they have shown some real failings of late, following their win against Juventus with just seven points from six league games. They could claim they were unlucky in the capital given that both Fredy Guarin and Antonio Cassano struck the woodwork, but in all truth they struggled to deal with Klose for much of the night, and the Germany international should have scored from a simple chance just moments before firing home the game's only goal. There is still much for Inter to do.
- David Pizarro bounced back from a traumatic week to play a key role in Fiorentina's 4-1 win over Siena which ended a three-match run without a victory. The Chilean returned to Florence in time for the game having missed last week's defeat at Roma after the death of his sister, and he was visibly emotional before kick-off on Sunday when fans in the Curva Fiesole displayed a message of support for their diminutive midfielder. He then got about his business superbly to lead his side to a victory which boosts their hopes of a Champions League challenge, scoring a penalty in the process.
- Milan's recent climb up the league continued as they bagged a fourth straight victory against lowly Pescara. Since going 2-0 behind to Napoli last month, their form has taken a significant upturn, pushing them to within fighting distance of the European places. Such has been the change in mood around Milanello that there were a great number of platitudes being dished out at Sunday night's Curva Sud Christmas party, which was attended by Adriano Galliani and a number of first-team players. There is still a long way to go for Milan to completely banish memories of their poor start to the campaign, and next week they face a difficult trip to Roma, but credit must go to those involved in a great turnaround to this point.
- Finally, a little nod to Antonio Nocerino, the scorer of the season's second-fastest goal (Vidal's against Inter on 18 seconds beat him) in the Rossoneri's 4-1 win. Nocerino later dedicated his strike to the families of those killed in the Newtown massacre in Connecticut last week. Sometimes, Serie A's footballers are rightly rounded on for moments of distaste, but Nocerino's gesture was the mark of a class act. Bravo, Noce.