No Serie A player has scored more times this season compared to Slovenian, who underlined his world-class talent with a historical four-goal haul at Valencia.
Nobody at Atalanta calls Josip Ilicic by his name. They call him ‘Il Professore’ since he gives classes in the art of soccer.
His latest came at Mestalla on Tuesday night, with Ilicic scoring all Atalanta’s goals in a 4-3 win over Valencia that saw the Champions League debutants advancement to the quarter-finals 8-4 on aggregate.
It could not have come at a better time for those of Bergamo. They’ve suffered more than most due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in Italy. As the Gazzetta Dello Sport read on Wednesday morning this was a “historic victory for Bergamo in its darkest hours.”
Ilicic was all smiles afterward. “The older I get, the better I perform,” the 32-year-old told Sky Sport Italia. “I am having a good deal of fun.”
Ilicic, though, has not always had such a sunny disposition — that perhaps explains why only now is he making the most of his many gifts.
Indeed, for quite a very long time Ilicic was considered a maddeningly frustrating character, a player blessed with talent but cursed with a bad attitude.
“He was something of a miserable moaner,” a mentor who worked at Fiorentina through Vincenzo Montella’s first spell in charge.
“He seemed unhappy. And he acted unhappily. He didn’t speak to a lot of men and women. He did not even say hello to many men and women.
“I always believed he was somewhat like a sulkier version of the stereotypical Brazilian footballer, he had to feel happy so as to get the most out of his extraordinary natural ability.
“Players like Ilicic occasionally have to feel important and he was not among those big stars at Fiorentina.
“At the moment, Mario Gomez had just arrived, Juan Cuadrado was still there, Beppe Rossi also, Massimo Ambrosini and Alberto Aquilani.
“So, maybe that is why there was no wonderful consistency in his play. His performances fluctuated with his disposition.”
Ilicic has always resented the notion — the fantasy as he sees it — that he did not deliver on a regular basis for Fiorentina. However, there is no denying that he had a specific character.
He brought it with him to Atalanta too. In Bergamo, he was quickly nicknamed ‘La Nonna’ (‘The grandmother’) because he was constantly complaining.
Even coach Gian Piero Gasperini stopped courteously asking Ilicic how the attacker was feeling, as he’d always answer, “Bad, bad.”
“I’d instead immediately say, ‘You look great. You are lively,'” the Atalanta boss told Sky Sport Italia.
Ilicic’s demeanour did shift in Bergamo, however, for very dramatic reasons.
The Slovenian was deeply affected by the death of his former Fiorentina team-mate Davide Astori, who passed away at the age of just 31 on March 4, 2018 after suffering a cardiac arrest while he slept.
Ilicic wasn’t only devastated by the loss of a man he considered a terrific friend but also shocked by the suddenness of the defender’s death.
“I was not able to get any sleep, I was constantly thinking about him and that I thought the exact same could happen to me also,” he confessed to the Corriere Dello Sport.
“I was scared and I was thinking: ‘What if the same happens to me? How can not I see my daughter again?
“There was a moment when I was scared to go to sleep, it lasted until a couple of weeks ago.”
Ilicic was worried sick. Then, he became ill.
In the summer of 2018, he had been hospitalised by a mystery illness. Doctors suspected a bacterial disease of the lymph nodes but were unable to diagnose Illic’s condition.
He eventually made a complete recovery due to a programme of antibiotics but was in and out of the hospital for 2 months.
Ilicic afterward told Atalanta’s official site that during that time, he “realised soccer is not everything in life.
“Sometimes people get mad over nothing, but that illness changed me. We must play with a grin; that’s the main thing.”
He has certainly had plenty to smile about since returning to action.
Last year, he played a pivotal role in Atalanta qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history by netting 12 times in 31 Serie A appearances.
This season, he’s gone to another level. Never before had Ilicic scored over 16 goals in all competitions across one effort. He has 21 this expression — and out of only 29 outings.
His form since the turn of this year has been really extraordinary. Indeed, he’s scored more goals than any other Serie A participant in all contests in 2020 (14) — that is extraordinary when one considers the scoring series that Cristiano Ronaldo has been around.
However, the reason Ilicic is considered by many neutrals as the best player in Italy isn’t his impressive strike rate — although it’s certainly helped alter his picture of inconsistency — but the character of his game, and his goals.
Ilicic has a left foot which could be described as a hammer’ and’a wand’ — and his right foot is excellent also, as underlined by his first-leg attack against Valencia.
However, it’s his vision an innovation that sets him apart from the typical attacker. It was hard to not think of Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he netted against Lecce last month.
The Swede once said of a motion which bamboozled Stephane Henchoz, “First, I moved; afterward, he did also. I went, he did too. Then, I went again and Henchoz, he went to purchase a hot dog.”
Illicic, however, sent not one defender but two — and a goalkeeper — to get a hot dog with an outrageous feint in the Via del Mare.
In January, he struck a free-kick from halfway that captured Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu in no man’s land.
Last September, meanwhile, he played as great a pass as you’re ever going to see, placing Andraz Sporar in behind the Poland defence to score with a ball played from 10 yards inside his own half and with the exterior of the wondrous left foot.
It was really a joy to behold. As the game ought to be.
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Ilicic has long since realised that football is supposed to be appreciated — not taken too seriously.
He plays with a grin on his face — and is placing one on everybody else’s in a very stressful time.
Ilicic might have travelled a long road to get here but, for Bergamo, Italy and football fans in general, he could not have picked a better time to get there.