Gian Piero Gasperini feels Atalanta deserve the Champions League for their consistent, attacking approach. “The tension is building, but it’s positive tension.”
The game with Sassuolo kicks off on Sunday at 19.30 UK time (18.30 GMT), click here for a match preview.
The Orobici are in third place, beating Inter thanks to a superior head-to-head record, with Milan sitting one point behind them going into the final round.
“A victory tomorrow would close out the season in exhilarating fashion,” said Gasp in his Press conference just days after losing the Coppa Italia Final to Lazio.
“It all depends on us. We won’t have to listen to the news from other stadiums if we do our duty. Our destiny is in our hands and we could even finish third. Just fourth seemed almost impossible, so imagine third!”
It’s particularly remarkable considering how badly Atalanta started the season, as they were in the relegation zone after eight rounds.
“My lads have been extraordinary and all the compliments I have received should be passed on to them. We’ve been very consistent with both results and performances. We picked up many points and scored a lot of goals.
“People said we are entertaining to watch, but ultimately the results are what matter. We’ve beaten bigger clubs and it felt like one constant fightback because we started so badly. This is certainly a side with quality, as we scored 100 goals in all competition.
“How many games did we go behind and come back to win? That was decisive in our growth process. It is essential to me that players enjoy their football, otherwise they’re not as invested in the game.
“The common denominator in all our games has been that we try to score goals. Usually, the best defence wins in Italy, but when we failed to score, such as against Empoli and Chievo, we didn’t get the win. I’ve noticed that as we gained credibility, the opponents worked harder to neutralise us.
“The victory over Napoli was decisive, because after the incredible 0-0 draw with Empoli, it reignited our belief in the Champions League. Now we are guaranteed at least the Europa League for the third year running and that is something.
“I will admit, if we don’t make it into the Champions League now, it’ll be a huge disappointment. Losing the Coppa Italia was difficult to swallow, too.
“We must remember that this is a sport where only one team wins the Scudetto and all those behind them can’t just commit sporting suicide. It’s about surpassing your own limitations, that is a victory. Otherwise sport is pointless, as only one wins and the rest can give up.”
The Coach has been called a mastermind for his work over the last three seasons, taking Atalanta to Europe every time and now on the verge of their first ever Champions League campaign.
“The tension in the air is building, because we are so close to the finish line, but it’s positive tension. Qualifying for the Champions League would be an historic achievement for Atalanta, as before we thought the Europa League was the maximum target.
“In a way, I think going out of the preliminary round to FC Copenhagen was a blessing. We wouldn’t have been able to play a season like this otherwise. It hurt at the time, but we worked all year to rebuild that bridge to Europe and I don’t think with the group stage we’d have maintained this consistency in Serie A, the Coppa Italia and Europa League too.”
As the Stadio Azzurri d’Italia is undergoing restructuring work, the final two home games of the season are played at Sassuolo’s Mapei Stadium in Reggio-Emilia.
By a strange quirk of fate, this decisive match is against Sassuolo, who will be the ‘away’ team in their home stadium, but Atalanta fans are flocking in their thousands to attend.
“This just adds to the madness of the season, but we’ve beaten so many hurdles and potential alibis for failure. It is undoubtedly an anomalous situation and I would’ve preferred to be in Bergamo for a day like this, but the construction of the stadium is another great achievement for this club, which is growing so fast. We must accept the odd inconvenience for that.
“Our supporters have been extraordinary. We’ve always had thousands following us right from the Europa League preliminary round in July 2018.”
Hans Hateboer is suspended, with Rafael Toloi injured, so there is a choice to be made between Jose Luis Palomino and Gianluca Mancini in defence.
Timothy Castagne and Robin Gosens are expected to take the wing-back roles, with Papu Gomez and Josip Ilicic supporting Duvan Zapata.