Tuesday May 14 2019
Papu found all he wanted with Atalanta

Papu Gomez rejected big clubs because he wanted to be a protagonist, but Jay Cassano outlines how he combined ambition and affection at Atalanta.

When, in 2014, Atalanta signed 26-year old Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez for €8m from little-known Metalist Kharkiv, there were no front-page headlines. There were no pundits debating for days on end the merits of the signing. And the club from Bergamo had no idea they had just brought a future club icon to town.

Gomez moved to Ukraine after three years at Catania because he wanted to play in the Champions League. Then a 25-year-old creative, goal-scoring playmaker about to enter his prime, he rejected offers from the likes of Atletico Madrid and Inter because he thought Metalist gave him a better shot at making a name for himself in Europe’s top tournament.

Say what you will of his reasoning, but you have to admire his willingness to make an unconventional decision in pursuit of his dream. Unfortunately, his time in Ukraine did not go well. Just two weeks later, Metalist was banned from the Champions League for match-fixing, but Gomez was still on the hook for his four-year contract. When unrest spread throughout eastern Ukraine in 2014, Gomez was able to push for a move back to Italy.

But with his stock down from a year of poor performances and barely playing, his suitors were no longer Europe’s elite, but the black and blue club from Bergamo — a city of 120,000, a sixth of which can fit inside Atalanta’s 21,000-seater stadium. He was slow to readjust in his first season back on the Peninsula, but played a key role in salvaging La Dea from relegation in Week 35, as he netted a goal and an assist in a narrow 3-2 victory away to a Palermo side that boasted the likes of Andrea Belotti and Paulo Dybala. Atalanta finished one place above the drop zone, three points ahead of relegated Cagliari.

Atalanta has consistently grown since then, with the project really taking shape when Gian Piero Gasperini was made Coach in 2016. Gasp’s aggressive wing-back play combined with Papu pulling the strings in the middle of the park led the so-called “provincial” club to an astonishing fourth-place finish on 72 points. They just had the misfortune of finishing fourth in a year in which Serie A was only afforded Champions League berths for its top three teams. Papu’s dream of playing in the Champions League was still on hold.

Now, five years since arriving in Lombardy, Gomez finds himself the captain of a club playing in the Coppa Italia Final and narrowly sitting in fourth place in Serie A, which would book the last spot for next season’s Champions League. He has already achieved another ambition, earning four senior caps for Argentina thanks to his performances in Bergamo.

A victory in the Coppa Italia would be monumental for Atalanta, who haven’t lifted the trophy in more than half a century. But as much as any victory in football belongs to the group, in a special way the trophy would really belong to Gomez. He has been the central gear around which Gasperini’s project has turned.

Since 2016, he has stuck around through the departures of promising youngster after promising youngster: Franck Kessie, Mattia Caldara, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Conti, Bryan Cristante. Players have rotated in and out, but Papu remains at the centre, both of Atalanta’s squad when he’s on the pitch and of their larger project.

At times it looked like Papu was going to become the old veteran left behind by those youngsters, the one who missed his chance, the wizened one there to impart knowledge to the youth transiting through. But his faith and loyalty has been repaid by Gasperini, by Bergamo, and by Atalanta. As prospects have departed Atalanta’s talent factory, they’ve been replenished in the form of Duvan Zapata and Gianluca Mancini, while other core players like Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler have been retained.

Gomez’s league-leading 11 assists — the third consecutive season he’s contributed assists in the double digits — are a key part of Atalanta’s form this season. But it has truly been a collective effort by the team built around him.

A decade after leaving Argentina for Italy, Gomez is on the brink of finally playing in the Champions League for the first time. His pursuit of playing in that most glorified of tournaments derailed his career for so long. It’s a lovely bit of poetry that the first time he sets foot in a Champions League match would also be the first time ever that Atalanta B.C., the club built around him, play in the tournament.

But to cap off a memorable season, his sights are set on the Coppa Italia, where he must beat a hungry Lazio, out for revenge at home. The last and only senior trophy Papu ever lifted was the Copa Sudamericana. He was a 19-year-old playing in Buenos Aires and had just scored two decisive away goals in the final’s first leg for the club that raised him, Arsenal de Sarandí. A few years later he earned a move to Italy for Catania, and then it all went wrong.

It’s been 12 long years since Papu Gomez has had a taste of silverware. It’s only been slightly longer for his beloved Atalanta.

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