Atalanta B.C.: A Source of Entertainment, The Established Dark Horse
Source: GIUSEPPE MAFFIA/IMAGE OF SPORT/NEWSCOM/ZUMA PRESS
Canada is in the middle of another state of emergency. Many people across the country and around the world are forced to find new ways to be entertained. Many would look to literature or perhaps a new video game. However, if you found your way here, the entertainment you are looking for is from sports.
To legally watch Premier League or Champions League in Canada, one would have to buy the sports package from DAZN to have access to every live game. When someone buys a sports package, they are spending money on the sports industry and in return, they want to be provided the highest quality of competition and be entertained.
Sports can provide all kinds of entertainment—from dramatic comebacks like Barcelona’s 2017 victory over PSG to propel the word remontada (comeback) into the worldwide dictionary, to crushing defeats like Ghana’s exit from the World Cup in 2010 when Luis Suarez committed a handball on purpose to stop a shot on goal to save Uruguay’s fate.
No doubt any fan of the beautiful game can find entertainment, but which club can provide the most entertainment for their fans? There is one club located in the north of Italy that has provided score lines such as 7-0, 5-1, 6-2, 5-0, and 4-1 over the last five seasons. A team that continues to grow in status each year in their domestic league, into the Europa league, and now to the Champions League.
That club would be Atalanta Bergamacsa Calcio.
This is not a big historic club who would have its name entered into a “European Super League” without raising some eyebrows. This is a club that is rising to the challenge of becoming a “big club”. Atalanta appointed a new manager who took them to the club’s highest finish in Serie A during that time frame. This is a record they would soon break.
It was before the 2016/17 season when Atalanta looked to change their fortunes. Their manager at the time, Edoardo Reja, was only capable of staying above the relegation zone. The club needed change. Like any thrilling heist movie, the job would need a mastermind. They would need to be able to achieve any goal and know how to solve any problem at any time. So a new manager was brought in, Gian Piero Gasperini.
He left Genoa after three years and brought European glory to a team that finished 17th two seasons before Gasperini’s arrival. Atalanta thought they would receive the same boost in the Italian table that Genoa enjoyed under his spell. They were delighted to see their highest finish in the table in their history at 4th, qualifying for the Europa League.
All the players benefited from the new manager’s arrival, but none more so than Alejandro “Papu” Gomez, who scored 16 goals in his first season playing for Gasperini, which doubled his league total in his career. He would become captain at the end of the season with the retirement of the former skipper. This season would be the only season in Gasperini’s Atalanta career that they would start the Coppa Italia in the third round. In every subsequent year, they would be placed in the following round, the round of 16. This brought them a higher status to the club for the people of Italy.
A heist movie needs its cast of different experts in different fields that would be created by the lead-mastermind in charge of it all. Gasperini did not waste time in taking the opportunity to bring in low-cost/high-quality players to mix with the successful squad members with which he enjoyed his first season.
Even though 12 players were hired during the summer of 2017, only 5 would become crucial to the success of the club's history. Gosens, Ilicic, Palomino, Castagne and De Roon were all steals; only De Roon cost double figures in the millions of euros. This would be half the crew that would attempt to heist whatever the manager planned and the rest would be from the squad already at the club led by Papu.
The boost of 12 players in the summer of 2017 was required because Gasperini knew he would be adding a European campaign, and he would still want to be competitive in Serie A as well as the Coppa Italia. Atalanta had early success in Europe and did not lose any of their games in the group stage, although Olympique Lyonnais was in their group. Atalanta would upset Napoli in the Coppa Italia’s quarter final matchup, 2-1, with a smashing performance from star man Papu Gomez.
Success would take a step back in the starting months of 2018 as Atalanta would be knocked out of the Europa League by Borussia Dortmund by an aggregated score of 4-3. Juventus would be Atalanta’s opponent in the semi final of the Coppa Italia, and the winners of Serie A would be able to boast winning two games against the club nicknamed “The Goddess” by 1-0 scores on both occasions.
In the end, Atalanta would finish 7th in the Serie A table, and it would be the worst finish for Gasperini in his tenure; however, they still qualified for the Europa League. At this point, the heist movie would be in the thick of the action with the authorities gaining a handle on the situation; Gasperini would need to think for a moment.
During the summer of 2018, Atalanta would again proceed to be successful in the transfer market, wheeling and dealing players much to the likes of “The Hangover”’s blackjack-math-crunching scene. Gollini was brought in as an instant starter between the posts. Loans with the option to buy for players like Zapata and Pasalic, who finished first and fourth in the team’s season goalscoring, were the biggest surprises to the enjoyment of Gasperini and the club.
Atalanta proceeded to the great car chase scene and attempted to make the Europa League group stage. Having been dropped into the second qualifying round, they would need to defeat three teams to earn a spot in the groups. The climax came down to the last of their three opponents, FC Copenhagen; they went into penalties, but were not able to win (or in the case of the heist movie, they got caught).
Gasperini did not have time for this setback and had a plan. Scores of 5-1, 6-2, 5-0, 4-1, and 3-0 soon came as evidence to the squad that was becoming perfectly moulded in Gaspereini’s attacking with a defensive structure’s philosophy. Atalanta eliminated the champions of Italy from the Coppa Italia, 3-0, and reached the finals, bringing the chance at silverware to a club that rarely had the opportunity to fight in the big games against the big clubs. They would lose 2-0 to Lazio, but the success of reaching the finals mattered and not the result of the final itself—Atalanta left the game with heads high.
Surely, because of a third-place finish in the Serie A table (their new highest in the club’s history), saw them achieve a goal many believed was impossible. That is the great thing about sports, anything is possible! The entertainment brought them glory and fame, and now a chance to fight champions on the European stage.
Now the next chapter could begin with Champions League qualification for the first time in the club’s history, and once again Atalanta was able to produce entertainment to a new set of viewers. This success brought in a new high in revenues to the club and they decided to increase the number of fans they were able to hold in the Gewiss Stadium by rebuilding the north and south stands. A 40-million-euro deal to increase the stadium capacity and revamp the surrounding area were the gifts the club gave back to their fans for their recent success.
Dinamo Zagreb, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Manchester City, were Atalanta’s opponents in the group stage of 2019/20 season. Luis Muriel and Ruslan Malinovskyi were the attacking additions to the squad, and they would be needed as they would have to play their “home” games at the San Siro in Milan less than an hour’s drive away, while the additions were being made to their stadium.
Cue the Champions League theme song.
Dinamo Zagreb destroyed Atalanta in the first game 4-0, and then Shakhtar Donetsk won 2-1, scoring the winner in the 95th minute. Then the final boss of Atalanta’s group stage, Manchester City, destroyed the small club from Bergamo, 5-1. With everything seeming too big for Atalanta to overcome, they shocked the football world in the fourth round of the group stage. Atalanta was able to hold onto a 1-1 draw vs. Manchester City in Milan. One point from four games.
The only positive Atalanta could hold on to was that Dinamo and Shakhtar drew both their games against one another, which left them each with 5 points. The only thing the two clubs would have to do was not lose to Atalanta and they would both go into the next round of a European competition.
Atalanta gathered themselves and welcomed Dinamo for the fifth round and would take control from the very start and win 2-0. Muriel won a penalty with an amazing dart in the box to get his team the early goal, and brilliance from Papu allowed them to score a second. Gasperini was excited after the match for his first Champions League win but knew only half the job was done.
Ukraine was the destination for the final group stage match, and Atalanta marched in sending the country into shock as they were able to score three goals in the second half of the game to see the club go from bottom of the group into second place, qualifying for the knockout stage. No team had advanced to the knockout stage with only one point in their first four games, yet Atalanta was able to complete this task and in it, provide the dramatic entertainment many love to see.
Qualifying for the knockout stage of Europe’s biggest competition was a new first for the small club from Bergamo, and their opponents would be Valencia CF in the round of 16. Milan would be the destination of the first leg.
With an attacking approach from the start of the game, Atalanta started overloading the opposition’s defensive zones to create chances to score. Defender Hans Hateboer, would get the first goal by running into the box to put pressure on Valencia’s left back, Gaya (who was already dealing with Ilicic), getting a foot onto Papu’s cross to tap it in. Valencia would respond well by trying to score an equalizer, but they squandered too many chances and it would not take long for Atalanta to have further chances of their own.
Ilicic scored Atalanta’s second, even though he was sieged on all sides by Valencia players outside the box and Papu’s drive to win possession back gave Frueler the ball to make it 3-0 at halftime. Each team would score in the second half even though Atalanta played to secure the win, Hans getting his second goal for Atalanta’s fourth.
The second leg in Spain would be Josip Ilicic’s greatest performance in his career, and arguably the greatest performance by an individual player for Atalanta. Even though they played in an empty stadium, Atalanta played inspired with Josip playing blessedly. Within two minutes, Ilicic had the ball in Valencia’s final third and won a penalty with his quick footwork, putting away the penalty himself for 1-0. Valencia answered, and all 22 players pushed on to score another goal for their side.
Ilicic’s threat in the box again won another penalty, this time a hand ball off the centre half trying to mark the Slovenian, and again he put it away to make it 2-1. The second half began and again Valencia scored an equalizer to try and stay in the competition, and made matters even worse when they scored another goal to put them ahead at 3-2 in the 67th minute. Josip would then step up again, and once the ball was won from Valencia’s attack it was the main man that drove forward to lead Atalanta’s counterattack. Zapata would put the ball on a plate for Josip who drove into the box and scored the goal that would get him his hat-trick.
Josip was not done yet, however, always finding space in dangerous areas, waiting while the rest of the team orchestrated a wonderful move to get the ball into the box for him to one time it into the opposite corner. That would be four.
COVID-19 would stop football, and everyone was uncertain how it would continue. Months passed till Germany produced a way to play and resume football. Some of the other European leagues returned, Italy included. Atalanta came back to finish their domestic league but still had eyes on Europe. The decision to complete the current Champions League season with a tournament-style bubble in Lisbon was welcomed by the Italian club and they focused on Serie A, earning another third place finish and securing a Champions League place in next season's competition.
Next, the Champions League resumed in Lisbon, and Atalanta knew they would have to play their best to beat the opposition they were drawn against, Paris Saint-Germain. Everyone had this game as the “David vs Goliath” of the final 8 one-game matchups and of course it was “The Goddess” who shocked many by opening the scoring in the 27th minute. Bringing the excitement like the sight of an eagle diving in mid-flight to snatch its prey, Atalanta looked to score by driving into the box and creating chances.
Pasalic pounced on the ball to deliver a perfect shot into the top corner and Atalanta would take the lead. Neymar led the Parisian attack to get an equalizer and soon Mbappe would join him. Together they would put Atalanta into a defensive form, barely holding onto the lead. It would take until the 90th minute for Neymar to finally unlock the defensive block of Atalanta, and Marquinhos would tap in a vital goal to stay in the game. Shock turned to fear and soon Mbappe broke free and found Choupo-Moting, allowing PSG to take the lead and win the game.
Even though Atalanta would leave Lisbon early, their president, Antonio Percassi, was thinking of the next season and how to bring more success and entertainment to fans of the beautiful game. A second year in the Champions League would be the focus to provide continuity, even with a group considered to be harder than the first, containing Midtjylland, Ajax (most recent champion in the Netherlands), and Liverpool, fresh from their crowning as English champions.
This time Atalanta would start the competition with a win. A 4-0 statement trounced Midtjylland, as 4 different scorers exemplified the brilliant attacking display Atalanta fans loved to see. Ajax was welcomed to Bergamo and the Gewiss Stadium hosted its first ever Champions League game, ending in a thrilling 2-2 draw.
Liverpool was welcomed next to Bergamo, and maybe because there were no fans, Atalanta would be glad spectators didn’t have to witness the 5-0 thrashing the Reds delivered. Now Atalanta was in third place because of goal differential with Ajax and they needed to provide better performances against the current champions of other European leagues.
First was the return matchup with Liverpool at Anfield, one of the hardest places for opponents to get a win. Gasperini took the previous matchups he had with the big clubs in Europe and leaned on the correctable mistakes that dated back to the PSG loss in the summer. He organized a defensive block strong enough to last the entire 90 minutes and was still potent to score goals in the latter stages of the game, not just in the early stages. Ilicic got the first by being the threat he is in the box, and Gosen got the second by overloading the box with his clever run. A masterclass from Gasperini.
This left the two weaker opponents to finish off the group—an easy task one would think now for Atalanta, but a slip-up to Midtjylland and finishing the game on a 1-1 draw did more damage than sacrificing the extra two points. Just like a reality tv-show, there is bound to be drama within the group and some drama that is big enough to change the direction of the show.
It was at halftime when Papu Gomez and Gasperini had a falling out with each other over the tactics of the match which resulted in Papu being subbed off, later making social media posts in frustration. Papu only came on as a substitute once since then and has now completed his move to Sevilla FC, ending his talismanic career in Bergamo. Gasperini would turn to Ilicic to become the new leader in the attacking threat and allow the Slovenian the freedom to express himself for the benefit of the team.
The excitement of the last round of the Champions League group stages came down to a few matches, most drama coming from the group containing Real Madrid, Borussia Monchengladbach and Inter Milan. There was drama to be found with Atalanta as always who played Ajax in a winner-moves-on matchup in Amsterdam. Atalanta would bang in the only goal and were once again moving on to the knockout stages.
Perhaps the thoughts of the big opponents they’d beaten over the years like Liverpool, Valencia, Juventus, Inter Milan, and Napoli provided them a desire to achieve. They will be pitted against the most successful team in the history of Europe, Real Madrid CF. Nothing bigger than the round of 16 in the capital of Spain and another game back home to Zidane and his squad of internationals. The world stage would once again look to the small club from Bergamo to provide the entertainment, and hopefully succeed in upsetting the Goliath of the Champions League.
With 2021 a broad horizon for the club, they began by beating Sassuolo (at that time above them in the table) 5-1 and then followed it up with a 3-0 win over Parma, then a 4-1 win over Benevento. Muriel said after the latter game that Josip was levitating over the rest of the team, leading the team with his creative play.
Real Madrid is coming up and the fans from Bergamo will be dreaming of “what if?''. Another attempt in the Coppa Italia will surely be a chance at a trophy Gasperini will not want to miss as they started the competition in the round of 16 against Cagliari, beating them 3-1 with half their bench players featured in the team.
Now with some clubs preparing to kickstart the European knockout stage and the business end of the campaign, Atalanta travelled to face the team in first place in Italy, AC Milan. Atalanta would have to deal with revitalized Zlatan Ibrahimović bullying their three central defenders and the talent that could get him the ball.
Gasperini would not be bullied from his ideas, however, and kept the overloading attacks that had been so successful for the club and came out with the 3-0 upset. Defender Cristian Romero opened the scoring from a set piece, then a bleeding Ilicic slotted home a penalty after taking an elbow to the mouth with Zapata taking advantage of the open space that was available on the counterattack to finish it off.
Next was S.S. Lazio in the Coppa Italia, a magnificent desire to Bergamo, Atalanta B.C., Gasperini and the players themselves. The entertainment was in full swing as after the opening half each team traded two goals in dramatic fashion. Gasperini had to address their problems in defense while continuing to score at the same rate of the first half. The emotions Atalanta gave their manager were all over the place. Jose Palomino was given a red for a clumsy attempt to shadow his opponent away from goal.
Next, Cristian Romero, took the ball off the Lazio defender in a quick press and assisted new boy Aleksei Miranchuk’s goal. Gasperini, at that moment delighted, made substitutions to hold on to the lead. One of those subs was Zapata, who would win a penalty to then have it saved by Lazio’s keeper. Gasperini brought in one of his best defenders Rafael Toloi and closed up shop to hold onto the lead that his team acquired.
Atalanta would see the game out and once again they provided entertainment to both the die-hards and the newcomers who tuned in.
The future contains fixtures against Real Madrid in the Champions League, Napoli in the semi-final of the Coppa Italia and a push to achieve a third consecutive year in the top 3 of Serie A. They are not that far off from eternal glory. This club will need to win a trophy of any kind to be immortalized in the memory of many as history is written by the winners. Yet, come to think of it, the entertainment they provide is enough for me.