So, are Atalanta a Serie A contender or pretender?
Well, applying the letter of the law, the answer is the latter.
They are not genuine challengers for the Italian title and the 15 point gap between them and leaders Juventus when Covid-19 stopped play in mid-March is evidence of that.
However, that doesn’t tell the full picture – or even half of it.
For Atalanta have been nothing short of superb this past 18 months and in lying in fourth spot – where they finished last term along with reaching the Coppa Italia final – and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals when the 2019/20 season was halted, their achievements have surpassed all expectations.
Indeed, there’s nothing ‘pretend’ about their achievements to date for they have accomplished far more than many more illustrious clubs throughout Europe.
How have they done it?
Well, Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez can remember the moment he recognised Atalanta could become a big club and how Gian Piero Gasperini changed their mentality and embarked on an ‘incredible journey’.
Gomez is one of two players I’ve already included in my midfielders of the season so far. His late emergence perhaps wouldn’t have been so stark if he hadn’t enjoyed such an eclectic career.
Then there’s another 32 year-old in Josip Ilicic who made his mark in Champions League days before lockdown affected football the world over (except Belarus).
When the Slovenia international attacking midfielder scored four goals against Valencia in March, the whole of Europe sat up and took notice of what Atalanta fans had been saying for some time.
He is in the form of his life with 25 goals and 5 assists to date and Gasperini has played a big role in this development with emphatic results.
And what of striker Duvan Zapata?
Following relatively unconvincing loans at Udinese and Sampdoria, Zapata moved to Atalanta in 2018 and Gasperini unlocked him. His goalscoring record at La Dea – 34 goals in 52 Serie A appearances over the last 18 months – is sensational. He’s become a penalty box presence most can’t handle, converting close-range chances with efficiency and helping his team assert dominance in the final third.
He’s not the only player whose career has transformed in Bergamo and the pattern is becoming too obvious to ignore.
This is the team, from a city of 120,000 people, which has just gatecrashed the final eight of Europe’s most prestigious club competition – this after losing their first three games in the group phase by a combined 11-2 scoreline before drawing the fourth and winning the final two.
It was a remarkable comeback to not only qualify, let alone eliminate Valencia so comprehensively in the last 16.
Yet they’ve been unstoppable ever since that third group game, a 1-1 draw with Manchester City, followed by winning their next four Champions League matches on the bounce, scoring 13 goals and conceding five.
The team is keen to continue their Champions League adventure and help the people of Bergamo return to normality once the current pandemic is over.
Sadly, Bergamo is the epicentre of the Italian pandemic with, up until a few days ago, 26,977 deaths throughout the country, 13,449 in the region of Lombardy and, more specifically, 2,940 in Bergamo.
Whether that happens remain to be seen.
All 20 Serie A clubs have voted to complete the season, despite reports Torino and Brescia were in opposition to the campaign resuming, causing a split between the government, the Italian Football Federation and the other 18 top-flight sides.
Whether the campaign resumes or not, it can’t be argued Atalanta is a club to be proud of, both on and off the pitch.
To prove the point further, captain Gomez has helped set up a new charity project called The Biggest Game, with well-known stars from all over the world – not just football – donating items.
More than 100 sporting figures from all over the world have signed up to the initiative.
A class act off the pitch, matching their endeavours on the pitch,
Atalanta’s squad may not be the fourth most talented in the league, and yet there they are, with Gasperini brave enough to blood young players rather than seek the safest path to 40 points, and on a game-by-game basis, you can also count plenty of occasions when his tactical manoeuvring was essential.
Neither a contender, nor a pretender – just a football team achieving against the odds!
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