Hailing from a small city in northern Italy with a population of around 120,000, Atalanta have scripted a Cinderella story this season, both in the domestic and in the continental arena.
The Bergamo-based club, led by an unconventional tactician, finished third in the Serie A in the 2019/20 season with a club-record 78 points. A historic second-place finish was in their sights till the last matchday, but they suffered their only loss since the league’s restart to Inter Milan.
Now, with the exits of Juventus and Napoli in the last-16 stage of the UEFA Champions League, the responsibility of carrying Italy’s hopes of the first major European trophy in a decade has fallen upon the shoulders of the Bergamaschi.
In the quarterfinal at Estadio da Luz in Lisbon on Wenesday, Atalanta are set to face their polar opposites — Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain.
Atalanta will be counting on momentum gained from the 12-match winning streak towards the end of the season, a tactically fluid 3-4-2-1 system and their all-out attack approach, which has led to a league-high 98 goals, to ruffle some Parisian feathers and continue the dream.
But how has a club, who were doomed to mid-table indifference just four years ago, found itself amongst the Goliaths? The answer — Gian Piero Gasperini.
Before the 62-year-old joined ‘La Dea’ in 2016, the club’s last three finishes in the Serie A had been 13th, 17th, and 11th, but the fortunes soon changed. Apart from his fluid three-at-the-back system, Gasperini brought with him a tactically astute mind and a shrewd business brain.
Without flashing much money in the market, he led the club to a fourth-place finish in the 2016/17 season, unearthing hidden gems like Roberto Gagliardini, Franck Kessie, Mattia Caldara, and Andrea Conti in the process. The clubs at the top picked them up next season one by one, except the mercurial Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez.
Building the team around the five-foot-five Argentine, Gasperini forged history for the club when he guided it to a third-place finish in the 2018/19 season, securing a UEFA Champions League spot for the first time in its 112-year-old existence.
Even Roberto Mancini, the head coach of Italy, believes that Atalanta have transformed calcio with their brave and unflinching style. “They have a modern spirit and principles — courage to dare, attacking style, search for dominance beyond the result,” Mancini told Gazzetta Dello Sport.
“The top clubs in Europe all play with this mentality, but things are changing in Italy too… thanks to Atalanta. They have shown that a certain type of football, as well as being beautiful, reaps results,” he said.
The back-to-back top-four finishes and a quarter-final appearance in their maiden UEFA Champions League appearance would have remained a dream had it not been for the carefully assembled crew in black and the blue.
Albeit lacking household names, the squad’s ability to adapt and inflict pain on the opposition with periodical counter-attacks has been showered with praise. What makes their attacking prowess even more impressive is the variety of outlets — be it the trusted target man Duvan Zapata (19 goals, 8 assists), new signing Luis Muriel (19 goals, one assist), left-footed wizard Josip Ilicic (21 goals, 9 assists), left wingback Robin Gosens (10 goals, 8 assists) or central midfielders Mario Pasalic (11 goals, 7 assists) and Ruslan Malinovskyi (9 goals, 7 assists).
At the heart of the goal machine is captain ‘Papu’ (8 goals, 18 assists), who excels in wriggling his way out of crowded defences and playing the final pass for the goal. Ever since his rebirth in Italy after shifting to Bergamo from Metalist Kharkiv in 2014 for €4.4 million, Alejandro Gomez has been a revelation, registering a mammoth 96 goals in Gasperini’s four seasons.
Although the defence is suspect more often than not, conceding 48 goals in 38 league matches, Gasperini has never wavered from his high-tempo pressing game.
With this lethal team of unusual suspects, Atalanta is now set to embrace a poignant moment on Wednesday, with the entire club emotionally hell-bent on bringing smiles back to the faces of their supporters — the ones who suffered at the height of the coronavirus outbreak.
Back in March, when Bergamo’s hospitals were overwhelmed by infected people and morgues were unable to cope with the number of deaths, the army had been called in to take away the coffins.
“We will play with Bergamo and for Bergamo, this will give us extra strength. This region has suffered a lot, we know that very well in the squad and this gives us extra motivation when we go onto the field. It was in the case in Serie A and it will be the case in Lisbon,” midfielder Remo Freuler told the Eco di Bergamo.
Whether Gasperini’s blitzkreig can wake Bergamo’s population from their darkest night to their most glorious dawn — their first major title since the 1963 Coppa Italia — is a matter of 270 more minutes.