Ahead of Liverpool's third outing in Champions League Group D this evening, we take a closer look at how Serie A side Atalanta BC have emerged as one of the continent's most prolific teams.
For all the Reds’ adventures in Europe throughout the years, the Liver bird has never before been acquainted with Atalanta, the Greek goddess whose image decorates the façade at the Gewiss Stadium, where Jürgen Klopp’s men will take on a team that put four past FC Midtjylland on matchday one and came from 2-0 down to take a point off AFC Ajax last week.
The fact that Atalanta’s only three previous visits to UK soil have ended in a 2-0 loss to Merthyr Tydfil, a 5-1 win over Everton and a 5-1 loss to Manchester City paints a somewhat confused picture, but does at least point towards the key ingredient in the Bergamo club’s recent success: goals.
They plundered an incredible 98 – 22 more than eventual champions Juventus – last season en route to their second consecutive third-place finish in Italy’s top flight, a division-leading 77 the year before, and a none-too-shabby 23 in all competitions so far this term.
La Dea, or ‘The Goddess’, have smashed through Serie A goal records that had stood since the 1950s, hitting seven on three separate occasions in 2019-20 – and nor have they simply been stat-padding when the opportunities arose. Inter and AC, the Milan behemoths that have always loomed large over Atalanta in the Lombardy region that they share, were routed 4-1 and 5-0 respectively at the Gewiss Stadium during the last two years.
While it’s not unheard of for someone other than Inter, AC, Juventus, Roma, Lazio or Napoli to finish in one of Serie A’s Champions League qualification spots, it tends to be a rather short-lived rebellion. But by managing the feat two seasons on the spin, what Atalanta are doing seems like a much more sustained attempt to hijack the traditional hierarchy and chisel the goddess’ likeness onto Italian football’s Mount Rushmore.
Though always respected for their excellent youth academy, Atalanta were the quintessential snakes and ladders club throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s, going up to Serie A and back down to Serie B four times in 15 years. A lasting foothold in the top flight was finally secured between 2011 and 2016, but with no league finish better than 11th and no goals tally higher than 43, it’s fair to say a visit to their Bergamo home wasn’t quite the heart-pounding experience it tends to be nowadays.
The decisive moment that gave birth to all the thrills and spills of the current era was a home game against Napoli in October 2016, when new boss Gian Piero Gasperini, under pressure after a slow start to his debut campaign, gave a number of young players a start and was rewarded with a shock 1-0 victory.
That youthful Nerazzurri incarnation then stormed to an against-all-odds fourth-place finish – not enough for Champions League qualification due to Italy’s coefficient at the time – and although most of the star performers were then plucked away by the Milan clubs, the replacements that arrived that summer quickly became vital cogs in a machine that’s been hurtling along at breakneck speed ever since.
Wing-backs Robin Gosens and Hans Hateboer, both relative unknowns when they arrived from the Eredivisie in 2017, have gone on to become regular starters for the national teams of Germany and the Netherlands respectively. As for the experienced front three of Josip Ilicic, Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez and Duvan Zapata, all three were proven Serie A performers when they signed but have taken developmental leaps forward that conventional wisdom would deem improbable for players in their age group.
“With Papu we are talking about an extraordinary player who had not achieved his potential because he never trained well,” Gasperini noted in an interview with The Guardian last May. “When he started training better he raised his level to become one of the best in Europe. We used to call Josip ‘The Grandma’ because he was just going around being nice to everyone. Once he changed his mindset we stopped calling him grandma, and now we call him ‘The Professor’.”
Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini
A former Juventus youth coach who first marked himself out as a tactical maverick by guiding Genoa from Serie B to the Europa League inside three years, Gasperini has perfected his signature 3-4-2-1 formation in Bergamo, where everyone – centre-backs and ‘defensive’ midfielders included – is expected to pull their weight in front of goal.
Those 98 Serie A goals last season were netted by 14 different players, and it rather says it all that the left wing-back, Gosens, nearly got into double figures and the substitute striker, Luis Muriel, was the joint-fifth highest scorer in the league with 18 strikes despite making only 10 starts.
Atalanta did suffer emphatic losses against Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli and Claudio Ranieri’s Sampdoria last month, and they also have their fair share of injury concerns after a bruising 2-1 win at Crotone on Saturday that raised them to fourth in Serie A, with the influential Gosens and midfield anchor Marten de Roon among those who will miss out tonight.
But their ambition is to recapture the magic of last season, when they became only the second team in Champions League history – after Newcastle United – to qualify for the knockout phase after losing their first three group games, went deeper in the competition than any other Italian side, and were a couple of injury-time goals away from ousting eventual finalists Paris Saint-Germain in the last eight.
More than that, it’s about providing hope and comfort to the people of a region that suffered more than any other in Italy during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak. Like their Liverpudlian counterparts, at the height of the crisis Atalanta’s fans worked together in aid of good causes, raising €60,000 for a local hospital.
Tonight, both sets of supporters get to focus purely and simply on the football, and on a spectacle that isn’t likely to disappoint.