There has been no end to the plaudits bestowed upon Atalanta over the last 18 months. The club, always prized for churning out very good players through their youth academy, won over the hearts and minds of fans and experts alike for their ability to operate cannily in the transfer market with a limited budget and by playing vibrant football under the watchful eye of Gian Piero Gasperini.
However, last week’s sobering 4-0 defeat in their debut Champions League match away to Dinamo Zagreb has brought into question whether Atalanta are fit for purpose in Europe’s elite competition. Are La Dea too small to be big, or too big to be small?
A case could be made that complacency set in ahead of the game against the Croatian champions. Many Atalanta players ahead of the draw for the tournament expressed wishes to be placed in the toughest-possible group. This viewpoint is understandable; some might never again play in the Champions League and want to make the claim of playing against Europe’s heavyweights in matches of substance.
Yet their wish, Manchester City aside, didn’t come true. Drawn in a group with Dinamo and Shakhtar Donetsk, there was now a feeling that they could realistically make it out of the group. Last season, they went undefeated against Juventus in three games, putting them out of the Coppa Italia in the process, thrashed Inter 4-1 and also beat Napoli at the San Paolo. Why, perhaps went the thinking, would they fear Dinamo and Shakhtar? Second place in the group was there for the taking.
To play devil’s advocate here, there is a chance the opposite happened. Perhaps the pressure of knowing that qualification for the Round of 16 is feasible paralysed the team. Atalanta offered little defensively or offensively in Zagreb, floundering in the two areas of the pitch that they normally excel in. Dinamo’s slick football cut through Gasperini’s defence time and again, and the scoreline could’ve been bigger. The 4–0 defeat was Italy’s heaviest in the competition since Barcelona walloped Roma 6-1 in 2015, during the dying days of the Rudi Garcia era.
But there is reason to be optimistic. During their Europa League voyage two seasons ago, Atalanta found themselves in a group containing Everton, Olympique Lyonnais and Apollon Limassol. Most expected Atalanta to finish third, yet they demolished Everton over two games, with a combined score line of 8-1, and beat Lyon at home to top the group. They narrowly lost to Borussia Dortmund in the last 32, in two thrilling games that ended 4-3 on aggregate to the Germans.
Perhaps the heavy defeat in Zagreb was an aberration, an adjustment period that is necessary when entering the biggest competition in club football for a team with no experience. They face Shakhtar next week at San Siro in the second round of fixtures, and if a similar scenario occurs against the Ukrainian champions then further examinations will be held and we’ll get a better picture of where Atalanta are going as a club. But at this stage, it’s too early to make judgments.