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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Atalanta never cease to amaze – they look motivated for another Champions League tilt

When the sense of wonder subsided, a knowing nod followed.

Serie A’s top scorers in stoppage time, Atalanta just kept going at Marassi. The apologetic Davide Zappacosta, a former Genoa player, excused himself with the local crowd after making sure of the win in the 101st minute.

Still, his teammate, El Bilal Toure, the striker in whom Atalanta reinvested some of the proceeds from Rasmus Hojlund’s record sale to Manchester United last summer, wasn’t done. Toure, like Zappacosta, came on in the second half and, seven months after joining from Almeria, finally made his debut. He was determined to mark it with a goal after twice undergoing surgery since his move to Bergamo and did so with an opportunistic header which turned out to be the latest goal scored in years in Serie A.

Box fresh in more ways than one, Toure felt like a new signing and his belated availability has allowed Atalanta to weigh up an offer from MLS for Luis Muriel.

The tardy goals showed Atalanta’s depth, belief and endurance, a trait long credited to fitness coach Jens Bangsbo, who left in the autumn. They secured Atalanta a precious away win at a ground where Inter, Juventus, Roma and Napoli dropped points earlier in the season. They were, even more remarkably, the 700th and 701st goals in Gian Piero Gasperini’s seven and a half years at the club. A coach once so closely associated with Sunday’s opponent Genoa to the extent he was nicknamed ‘Gasperson’ in honour of Sir Alex Ferguson on the basis that a couple of spells under trigger-happy former owner Enrico Preziosi felt like a lifetime, has written himself even more indelibly into Atalanta folklore.

Last weekend he joined Giovanni Trapattoni, Max Allegri, Carlo Ancelotti and Helenio Herrera in becoming only the fifth coach in Serie A history to record 150 league wins with one club. Numbers like these, much like Atalanta’s sustained success, all too often get taken for granted. Udinese, for instance, were never able to keep a run going this long neither at the end of the ’90s nor the beginning of the last decade. Parma achieved more and were a club of a similar size. They were just one that was bankrolled like a sovereign wealth fund only with riches generated from milk instead of oil. This was the case until Parmalat, the club’s benefactor, became embroiled in Europe’s biggest corporate bankruptcy.

El Bilal Toure celebrates (Simone Arveda/Getty Images)

Atalanta have been built on firmer foundations. They have qualified for Europe in six of Gasperini’s seven seasons and after topping their Europa League group in December, get to skip this week’s play-off round. Sunday’s win, Atalanta’s fourth in a row, meant they stayed in fourth, where a seven-point cushion could open up if they win their game in hand (a tricky one away to league leaders Inter). Atalanta’s story is often put down to continuity. The league’s longest-serving coach has built, deconstructed and rebuilt several teams with more or less the same results, normalising overachievement these past seven and a half years. He can call upon a core of veteran players — Marten de Roon, Berat Djimsiti, Rafael Toloi, Mario Pasalic and Hans Hateboer — who have played hundreds and hundreds of games under him.

Even when a 55 per cent stake in the club was sold to Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca two years ago, the father and son duo Antonio and Luca Percassi, local footballers turned entrepreneurs, didn’t cash out entirely. On the contrary, Atalanta have operated as a joint Pagliuca-Percassi venture, a convergence of mindsets.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest nothing has changed. Just as transitioning the Franck Kessie, Mattia Caldara, Andrea Conti and Roberto Gagliardini team to the Josip Ilicic, Robin Gosens, Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel one wasn’t guaranteed to go without a hiccup, neither was the move to a new recruitment operation. Eighteen months ago, Giovanni Sartori, the sporting director equivalent of a best-selling fairytales author, left for Bologna. He was replaced by Hellas Verona’s Tony D’Amico and Lee Congerton. Atalanta also expanded the use of analytics. Sartori has, along with Gasperini disciple Thiago Motta, quickly turned Bologna into a contender for European, even Champions League football. But Atalanta have not suffered in his absence either. Hojlund was bought for €20million and sold for €73m in less than a year. Ademola Lookman, last year’s top scorer, has been fantastic and while Ederson needed a season to adjust to Gasperini-ball, the all-action midfielder must now rank as Atalanta’s most in-demand player.

This team isn’t yet as Papu-taining, slick and explosive as the one that came within minutes of reaching a Champions League semi-final in 2020, scoring 98 goals in the league. But it does have the making of one of Gasperini’s best. Zapata’s sale to another Gasperini acolyte, Torino’s Ivan Juric, in the summer and Muriel’s impending exit this winter have come about because of the range of options Atalanta have in attack. Gianluca Scamacca has, against Monza and Empoli, looked devastating. Toure’s goal at the weekend was hopefully a sign of things to come. The excellent Lookman stepped up when Scamacca went off the boil. Charles De Ketelaere has gone to another level since Lookman departed for AFCON. Even Aleksey Miranchuk has shown long-overdue signs of realising his potential. Going into this weekend Atalanta ranked third for shot-creating actions and touches in the opposition penalty area. Only Napoli have attempted more shots from high turnovers and no team has made more regains than Atalanta. Ederson and Teun Koopmeiners, an indomitable duo, keep recovering possession and then reload the attack close to goal.

Much of the attention at the moment has been drawn to De Ketelaere. The Belgian, on loan from AC Milan, has been involved in 13 goals for club and country since December and is a player transformed in the half spaces of Gasperini’s 3-4-2-1. His strike at Marassi called to mind the player he was disparagingly compared with at Milan, Yoann Gourcuff, for the elegant right-foot control and nonchalant left-foot finish. The only difference is De Ketelaere now promises to live up to the hype in Italy.

A rebuilt Atalanta are thriving under Gasperini again (Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Perceived as too nice at Milan, he was booked on Sunday for irking the Genoa players by cupping his ears and provoking the crowd after his goal. Gasperini turned the career of another Milan player around at Genoa, sending Suso back to San Siro a changed man. But Milan may have seen the last of De Ketelaere. Atalanta have an option to sign him permanently in the summer and could repeat what they did with Cristian Romero if De Ketelaere has a good Euros in Germany: buy the player, flip the player.

For all the focus on the attack, Atalanta have won 12 of 14 games in which they’ve scored first because of an ability to keep clean sheets. They have kept 10 this season. Only Inter, Juventus and Torino have racked up more. Not bad for a team that hasn’t always seemed convinced by its goalkeepers, Juan Musso — one of Sartori’s few expensive mistakes — and Marco Carnesecchi. While Atalanta defend from the front, Sead Kolasinac has integrated seamlessly into Gasperini’s back three, academy grad Giorgio Scalvini continues to go from strength to strength and as disappointing as it was to miss out on Radu Dragusin in January, more depth was added in the form of Isak Hien, a player D’Amico brought to Italy in 2022 while at Verona.

It remains to be seen if Atalanta’s form is sustainable. They are out-performing their xG by eight and soon face a gauntlet of games against Milan, Inter, Bologna, Juventus, Fiorentina and Napoli, fixtures that pile up ahead of a Coppa Italia semi-final first leg and the Europa League Round of 16. In the past Atalanta qualified for the Champions League when one of the big teams slipped up. This season Roma, Lazio and particularly Napoli are misfiring enough to open the door for them. Atalanta’s only other Champions League appearances coincided with COVID. They played historic games in Madrid, Liverpool and Amsterdam in empty stadiums. The idea of competing once again in that competition, only this time with the prospect of full crowds at a bigger and better Gewiss Arena, can only serve as ulterior motivation.

“No one is slowing down,” Gasperini warned. “Everyone’s having a go and fighting for it. It’ll be a heated tussle right until the end.”

His Atalanta never cease to amaze.

(Top photo: Simone Arveda/Getty Images)

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