thumbnail Hello, invites you to peruse the matches that we feel stood out above all others during what has hopefully been a perception-changing year for Italian football skeptics

That Italy has the most representatives in the last 16 of the Champions League has shocked many who still mistakenly regard Serie A as inferior to both the over-hyped Premier League and the two-horse race that is La Liga.

However, for those who have been following Italian football over the past 12 months, the presence of three sides in the knockout stages came as no surprise. The competitiveness and standard of football on show in Serie A this year have been outstanding and we think that has been reflected in our choices for the top five games of 2011.

However, feel free to make use of the comment box below to let us know if you agree with our choices or simply want to share some of your favorite moments of the year.

5. PALERMO 2-4 FIORENTINA (February 13)

Palermo was fifth in the league and still entertaining real hopes of qualifying the Champions League when it welcomed struggling Fiorentina to the Stadio Renzo Barbera.

The game could not have started much better for the Rosanero, with then-star man Javier Pastore sweeping home from the edge of the box to give the hosts the lead with just seven minutes elapsed.

However, Fiorentina, who were experiencing something of a resurgence under Sinisa Mihajlovic, deservedly drew level shortly before the interval when Alberto Gilardino beat Salvatore Sirigu with a close-range header.

Palermo went back in front when Alberto Nocerino stooped to head home after terrific work from Fabrizio Miccoli on the touchline and the latter should have had another assist soon after but he was incorrectly flagged offside after setting up Afriyie Acquah for a simple volleyed finish.

It was the game’s pivotal moment because Fiorentina leveled matters on 70 minutes when Michele Camporese turned in at the far post after being left totally unmarked for a corner.

The momentum was now with the Viola and they edged in front when Cesare Bovo accidentally turned Adem Ljajic’s cross into his own net. Riccardo Montolivo, who had earlier struck the post with a stunning strike for distance, then put the seal on a remarkable comeback when he passed the ball into the bottom right corner of the Palermo net after more good work from Ljajic. Even then, the home side had a chance to get themselves back into the game but Abel Hernandez saw a fiercely-struck shot come back off the woodwork.

Palermo, though, never really recovered from the defeat and ultimately finished eighth, 10 points outside the Champions League places.

4. BARI 2-3 ROMA (May 1)

Having been revitalized under new coach Vincenzo Montella, Roma arrived at the San Nicola at the tail end of the season in real contention for a fourth-placed finish. Certainly, the Giallorossi were expected to have little trouble in disposing of a Bari side whose relegation had already been confirmed.

However, with the pressure of trying to preserve its Serie A status now off, the hosts played with a freedom that had been lacking in their play all season. After tearing into Roma, the Biancorossi took the lead 25 minutes in when Simone Bentivoglio converted from the penalty spot after Juan had handled in the area.

Roma drew level through their talisman No. 10, Francesco Totti, who drilled a free-kick from a central position into the bottom left-corner of the Bari goal, and the Giallorossi took over. However, Bari reclaimed the lead just before the break, with a fine header from Erik Huseklepp.

Roma was reeling and its cause was hardly aided by the dismissal of Marco De Rossi three minutes into the second period for a petulant elbow on Bentivoglio. However, Juan then made amends for giving away a penalty by earning one at the other end and Totti stepped up to draw his side level for a second time with what was his 206th goal in Serie A, thus moving him ahead of Roberto Baggio and into fifth place in the league’s all-time top goalscorers list.

Totti should have racked up goal number 207 soon after but he saw his second spot-kick of the game - awarded for a foul on Marco Borriello by Kamil Glik - saved by Jean-Francois Gillet.

Glik had seen red for bringing down Borriello but Roma were then reduced to nine when Simone Perrotta was sent off for lashing out at Andrea Masiello. A point looked like the best that the visitors could hope for at that point but, in the fourth minute of injury time, the Giallorossi nicked all three when substitute Aleandro Rosi bundled the ball over the line after getting himself in the way of John Arne Riise’s cross.

3. NAPOLI 3-1 AC MILAN (September 18)

One of the reasons why Napoli had failed to land last year's title was their inability to defeat any of its Scudetto rivals. Indeed, it accrued just one point from their clashes with AC Milan, Inter and Udinese.

Consequently, the club's September showdown with reigning champions Milan, just two rounds into this year’s campaign, was viewed as a very early test of Napoli’s character.

Things did not start well at the San Paolo, with the visitors dominating possession early on before deservedly taking the lead with a stunning 12th-minute header from Alberto Aquilani from all of 16 yards out.

Did Napoli panic? No, it did not. The club stuck to its principles and proceeded to dismantle Milan with a stunning display of counterattacking football.

The timing of the hosts' equalizer was crucial, though, with Cavani drawing his side level less than two minutes later, the Uruguayan volleying home through Christian Abbiati’s legs after Christian Maggio had headed Ezequiel Lavezzi’s free-kick back across the box.

From that moment on, Napoli played the footballing equivalent of rope-a-dope to devastating effect, inviting Milan onto its final third only to repeatedly sting them with sucker-punches. The goal with which Walter Mazzarri’s men went ahead was arguably the perfect embodiment of their counterattacking ethos.

After Gokhan Inler had robbed Alexandre Pato of possession with Milan on the offensive just outside the Napoli box, Walter Gargano surged fully 70 meters forward, exposing Milan’s aging midfield trailing in his wake as he did so, before laying the ball off for Cavani, who whipped the ball past Abbiati.

Milan never really recovered and Cavani completed his hat-trick and effectively sealed the victory with a wonderfully instinctive first-time volley early in the second half, after Alessandro Nesta had failed to adequately clear Lavezzi's cross.

A point had been proven: just three days after holding Manchester City to a draw in the Champions League, Milan had underlined their new-found ability to mix it with the big boys.

2. NAPOLI 4-3 LAZIO (April 3)

Napoli’s brave bid for last season’s Scudetto had also floundered because the Partenopei had neither the experience nor the strength in the depth of their illustrious rivals, AC Milan and Inter.

However, what the club did have was an abundance of heart. It also had, in Cavani, the most lethal marksman in the league.

Against Lazio on April 4, Napoli found themselves 2-0 down after 57 minutes following goals from Stefano Mauri and Andre Dias.

The hosts pulled a goal back through Andrea Dossena’s far-post header on the hour and then drew level two minutes later when Cavani nodded home from close range. Lazio, though, reclaimed the lead on 68 minutes when Napoli’s Salvatore Aronica put through his own net.

Lesser sides would have crumbled but Napoli refused to give in and Cavani restored parity once more, with eight minutes to go, when he converted a penalty that he himself had won. With Giuseppe Biava having been issued the harshest of red cards for bundling the Uruguayan over in the box, Napoli was now able to push extra men forward in the closing stages.

Their pressure finally told with just over two minutes of normal time remaining, Cavani completing his fourth hat-trick of a truly remarkable season for both player and club by breaking the Lazio offside trap before controlling the ball with his chest and then coolly lobbing the ball over the advancing with the outside of the his right foot. Cue pandemonium on the field and in the stands.

Napoli ultimately failed to win the title but it was because of games such as this that it won the hearts of the neutrals.

1. NAPOLI 3-3 JUVENTUS (November 29)

Napoli’s meeting with Juventus at the tail end of last month was undoubtedly Serie A’s game of the year. It was also, arguably, the best game played anywhere in the world over the past 12 months.

It was utterly enthralling from start to finish. Juventus, the league leaders, started confidently but Marek Hamsik had already missed a penalty, at the second attempt, when he gave the home side the lead with a downward header.

Goran Pandev, starting in the absence of the injured Cavani, doubled Napoli’s advantage with a precise finish into the bottom corner after Andrea Pirlo’s attempted clearance had ricocheted into his path.

Two goals down at the interval, Juventus was in serious danger of losing its unbeaten record. However, Antonio Conte mixed things up during the break and the Bianconeri were a side transformed after the restart.

Suddenly, Pirlo and Arturo Vidal had more space in midfield and the latter created a goal for Alessandro Matri with a sumptuously-weighted and cleverly-disguised through-ball.

Napoli, though, looked to have put the game beyond its visitors with a characteristically lethal bolt from the blue, Maggio whipping the ball into the box for Pandev, who controlled with his right foot and cushioned the ball with his knee before volleying powerfully into the bottom-right corner via the post.

Juve, though showed the spirit of champions by hauling itself back into the contest when Marcelo Estigarribia prodded past Morgan De Sanctis after Mirko Vucinic’s speculative cross had made its way all the way across the Napoli box before Simone Pepe leveled matters with a fine low strike on 80 minutes at the end of a run straight at the home side’s defense.

Both sides pressed for a winner in the closing stages but, with both sides having played their part in what was the most wonderful advertisement for Italian football, it was only fitting that both sides got something out of the game.