A draw at Stade de Lyon has put Atalanta in a position they most likely didn’t think they’d be in – they’re top of their Europa League group after two games. The Bergamo based club were dealt a ‘group of death’ containing Lyon, Everton and Cypriot side Apollon Limassol. However, according to FiveThirtyEight, Atalanta have a 95% chance to advance to the knockout rounds.
The Serie A outfit have two out of three of their toughest Europa League games out of the way already. On Thursday evening, they looked like seasoned continental competitors.
It’s true, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side faced 21 shots from Olympique Lyonnais, seven of which forced saves from Etrit Berisha, and they only saw 35% of the ball. However, they still came out with a hard-earned point.
They didn’t let their heads drop even after conceding a goal on the stroke of half-time, their nerves never seem to get the better of them, and even their younger players, such as Mattia Caldara, didn’t seem frightened by the occasion.
The defensive positioning was structured and patient, but they added a more important European ingredient – clinical finishing. They’d barely threatened all night, but just before the hour mark, Papu Gomez played a one-two with Remo Freuler off a free kick and rifled past Anthony Lopes.
This week, Lyon star Nabil Fekir confessed he’d never heard of Gomez. Papu pointed to the name on the back of his jersey after the goal: they know him now. Considering Lyon were held to a last-gasp draw by Apollon Limassol – who pulled a similar trick when down to 10 men away to the dismal Everton – you’d think the French giants would put a little more effort into researching their group stage opponents. Instead, they even spent much of the media day referring to them as ‘Bergamo.’ Atalanta are named after the Goddess that runs like the wind, and they sprinted away from Lyon with a precious point.
These games are all about survival, especially when you’ve got a dream as narrow as Atalanta’s was when this competition started. All you need is that lucky chance and a solid defensive performance, and you might just be in business.
Even in May, Gasperini was tipping the Europa League to be a priority over Serie A, but when the groups were drawn, it looked a foolish commitment.
Now it’s Atalanta who are laughing. It’s not guaranteed that they will qualify for the knockout stages, but it looks promising. Perhaps pundits underrated just how much playing in this competition would mean to Atalanta: not all clubs regard it as an inconvenience.
Italy haven’t had a team that takes this competition seriously since it was called the UEFA Cup. For a club like Atalanta, who don’t know when it’ll next come around, it’s refreshing to see a club give their all in it. Hopefully this little Bergamo side can make a deep run, because they certainly showed they could last night.