This year’s Champions League saw the depressing endgame of UEFA’s endless cowering to the whims of the game’s biggest clubs. For the first time all the clubs reaching last 16 of the Champions League came from Europe’s big five leagues (4 each from the Premier League and La Liga, 3 each from Series A and the Bundesliga and 2 from Lique 1).
It’s all a far cry from 1987 when the champions of Spain and Italy were drawn against each other in a round one knockout fixture or 1992 when the same happened to the English and German champions. However, in amongst the corporate tinkering there is one underdog story left in the Champions League, Atalanta,
Atalanta have the 14th highest wage bill in Serie A and are based in the small town of Bergamo which currently has a population of 120,000, situated 60km north of Milan.
Atalanta finished third in Series A last season and will play Valencia in the Champions League in March. Atalanta were promoted to Serie A in 2011 after decades of yo-yoing between Italy’s top two divisions, their finest hour coming in 1963 when they lifted the Coppa Italia.
As is common to their history they spent the five seasons after their latest promotion scrambling in the bottom half of Serie A.
Gasperini’s Minor Miracle
The summer of 2016 saw the arrival of former Genoa manager Gian Piero Gasperini and Atalanta rocketed up Serie A. Argentinian forward Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez bagged 16 goals as Atalanta finished fourth and Gazzetta Sport named Gasperini coach of the year.
Despite qualifying for the Europa League, the following summer saw Atalanta raided by both the local behemoths with Alessandro Bastoni and Roberto Gagliandini snapped up by Inter and Andrea Conti heading to AC Milan.
However, Gasperini spent wisely adding Dutch midfielder Marten de Roon and Slovenian forward Josip Ilicic as Atalanta consolidated their place amongst the European qualifiers and made it to the semi-final of the Coppa Italia.
But even after those lofty achievements, few predicted the season that followed. Atalanta signed Sampdoria forward Duvan Zapata on a two-year loan, a player whose best return in five Serie A seasons had been 11 goals. Zapata smashed 23 league goals whilst Gomez and Ilicic shared a combined 18 assists as Atalanta found themselves chasing Champions League football.
Whilst Juventus and Napoli quickly assumed a dominant league position, Atalanta punched above their weight as they slugged it out with both the Milan clubs and Roma as four clubs chased two tickets to Europe’s’ top competition.
Many thought Atalanta’s ambition had suffered a fatal blow with back to back defeats in February, including a 3-1 home loss to Milan. However, Atalanta responded with a 13 game unbeaten run, the pivotal moment coming when Chelsea loanee Mario Pašalić grabbed a late goal to secure a surprise away win over Napoli.
Pašalić grabbed another late goal the following week to close out a 2-0 win over Udinese, then a come from behind win in the Stadio Olimpico stunned Lazio 3-1. On the final day of the season, Atalanta made sure of third place with Zapata, Gomez and Pašalić all scoring in a 3-1 win over Sassuolo.
Champions League Escapology
Atalanta’s entry into the Champions League didn’t see them get the luck of the draw as they were handed a tricky group with the Citeh billionaires and oligarch owner Shakhtar Donetsk. Atalanta’s debut in the Champions League proved no fairytale as they were battered 4-0 by Dynamo Zagreb.
Atalanta gained the permission of the Milan clubs to use the San Siro for Champions League games but their home debut ended in defeat when Shakhtar grabbed a 95th minute winner. Then came a 5-1 drubbing at the Etihad and Atalanta were rock bottom of their group and Zapata was ruled out of the group phase through injury.
With everything going wrong, Atalanta began their great escape with a spirited 1-1 draw against City with Pašalić cancelling out Raheem Sterling’s early strike. Colombian striker Luis Muriel gave them a first half lead over Zagreb as Atalanta pulled out a 2-0 win, giving Gasperini’s team a fighting chance heading to Kharkiv to face Shakhtar.
Atalanta started the final game bottom of the group but after a tense first half Timothy Castagne bundled in the opening goal and with Zagreb losing to City, Atalanta were edging into the knockout phase. Pašalić continued his habit of scoring late and left back Robin Gosens added an injury time third to send Atalanta through.
Smart Recruitment & Tactical Innovation
The question posed by Atalanta’s remarkable rise is how did they do it on a (relative) shoestring?
Take Pašalić, the Croatian midfielder has proved invaluable to ‘La Dea’ but at 24 he’s hardly one of Chelsea’s fledgling talents akin to Mason Mount or Callum Hudson-Odoi, but after 2 frutifull loan seasons Atalanta are set to sign him permanently for a mere €15million next summer.
Gomez has proved an absolute snip at just £4million, Ilicic was signed for just €5.5million from Fiorentina and de Roon arrived fresh from relegation with Middlesbrough and has since advanced to become a regular for the Netherlands.
Gasperini has previous form for reshaping his player’s careers. At Genoa he employed a 3-4-3 formation, redefining the roles of Thiago Motta and Diego Milito, a forerunner to the pair’s Champions League success with Inter.
The 61-year-old coach has continued with that system, in attack it does bare a resemblance to that of Antonio Conte, with Gomez in the Eden Hazard role of playing out wide in the attacking three but drifting infield. Atalanta employ an intense pressing game but unusually this is combined with a man to man marking system rather than zonal defending. It’s a high risk strategy that can leave gaps at the back but its aim of forcing teams to try and play down the middle is proving effective.
Atalanta’s achievements haven’t reached as high as Leicester City’s in 2016 or Montpellier’s in 2012, however three and a half seasons in Gasperini’s team has shown greater longevity than those of Claudio Ranieri or Rene Girard.
Atalanta currently sit sixth in Serie A and will be the only team playing Champions League knockout football at the San Siro this spring. Gasperini who endured a nightmare three month spell at Inter, seems in no hurry to leave and the Champions League money should ensure they can retain their best players, footballers bigger clubs had previously wrote off as journeymen.
Atalanta still need a trophy to cement their achievements, but as it stands, they remain the biggest surprise package Serie A has produced since Verona’s Scudetto back in 1985.