Atalanta have surely been the fairytale story in Serie A over the last couple of seasons. Gian Piero Gasperini’s side upset all odds in finishing third in the league last season and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history, but have arguably done one better this season.
La Dea were fourth in Serie A at the time of its postponement, with a three-point lead and a game in hand over Roma in fifth, meaning that many betting sites have them as favourites to repeat their qualification for the Champions League for next season. What’s more, they had sealed their progress to the quarter-finals of this year’s campaign, with an 8-4 aggregate win over Valencia. Atalanta have scored the most goals in Serie A this season, with a stunning 70 goals from just 25 games.
For context, the next best side, Lazio, have scored 60 goals, having played one game more. Gasperini has played a highly attacking brand of football that has brought huge dividends, but despite their success, Atalanta are unlikely to suffer an ‘Ajax’ moment and see their squad gutted by Europe’s heavyweights.
The hero, and headline-grabber of their season, has undoubtedly been Josip Ilicic. The Slovenian midfielder has scored 21 goals in 29 games, with a memorable performance in the second leg against Valencia, where he scored all four of Atalanta’s goals. The 32-year old is enjoying a late-career renaissance, but his age means that he is unlikely to be snapped up by a big European side. Besides, Ilicic looks like he is having the time of his life in Bergamo, and with another Champions League campaign likely after this one, there is no reason for him to move anywhere else.
It is a similar story for club captain Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez. The diminutive Argentinian returned to Italy in 2014 following an ill-fated year-long spell at Metalist Kharkiv in Ukraine, and is unlikely to go chasing riches again. He is beloved by the Atalanta fans, not just for his performances on the pitch, but for his behaviour and professionalism, as well as his habit of having bespoke captain’s armbands for every game. Gomez has been superb this season, dovetailing well with Ilicic to notch 10 assists in the league, to go with nine goals in all competitions.
Atalanta’s squad is primarily made up of older players, who have tried and failed to make it big in other countries and clubs but have now found a home in Bergamo. The likes of Mattia Caldara and Marten de Roon, are younger but have had their fingers burnt in trying to make big moves to AC Milan and Middlesbrough, respectively, and were only too happy to return to Atalanta and become part of a well-oiled machine.
Gasperini had previously seen his side stripped for parts when he guided Atalanta to a fourth-placed finish in the 2016-17 season, but back then, Serie A only had three spots in the Champions League. Moreover, Atalanta’s youth academy has already produced some pearls, whether they be for La Dea themselves or other clubs to enjoy. Alessandro Bastoni was sold to Inter Milan for €31 million two summers ago when he was only 18, while 19-year-old Dejan Kulusevski will join Juventus upon the expiry of his loan spell at Parma this summer for a fee that could potentially be €43 million.
Thus, the success of the club’s academy combined with the Champions League money has meant that the owner, Antonio Percassi, can reject big-money offers for his star players. Not that there are too many jostling for the exit door at present – consistent Champions League qualification, an attack-minded philosophy and a city which has embraced them has allowed the Atalanta players to hit their best form collectively over the last 18 months, and they seem in no hurry to wake up from this dream.