Not long ago, Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici’s comments about Atalanta possibly being the Italian Leicester City - that they could win the Scudetto like the Foxes lifted the Premier League title during the 2015-16 campaign - was widely dismissed.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s side don’t look remotely close to winning the Scudetto, but they’ve already done a Leicester. Albeit, in a different sense.
When La Dea went through to the knockout stages of the Champions League last night, it sent the Calcio community into a frenzy. In the 2016-17 edition, not even Leicester faced what Atalanta have in his one.
The English club had finished top of their group three years ago. They were two points clear of second-placed Porto. Even though they were languishing near the bottom of the Premier League at that time, they were thriving in Europe.
On Wednesday, goals from Timothy Castagne, Robin Gosens and Mario Pasalic overshadowed what has been a remarkable story. After all, it is the first time in several years that a team playing at San Siro have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League. The Bergamo-based club had lost their first three group games, leaving their hopes of progression in the balance.
But these are just facts that Atalanta have been coming up against for a while now. This club was in Serie B as recently as 2011. Over the years, they’ve lost players like Giacomo Bonaventura, Andrea Conti, Roberto Gagliardini, Manolo Gabbiadini, Davide Zappacosta, Alberto Grassi, Franck Kessie, Alessandro Bastoni, Gianluca Mancini and many more. They’ve relied on Giovanni Sartori’s sound recruitment to make some utterly-efficient transfers.
And over several months, Atalanta have been without their most influential striker. The game in Ukraine was a reflection of their strength in attack, despite missing Duvan Zapata.
Mario Pasalic started slightly further up front against Shakhtar, dropping deeper without the ball to add an extra man in midfield, while coming forward during transitions. When the Chelsea loanee failed to take advantage of a near-open goal in the first half after having been set up by Luis Muriel, it seemed as though Atalanta had squandered their best chance.
When Shakhtar gave the ball away cheaply once more in the final third, it was Muriel who couldn’t bury it. The home side did find the back of the net, but the finish was flagged offside. A feeling erupted that, maybe, this could go down as a gold-lettered day in the club’s history. In Zagreb, the wheels turned and Gabriel Jesus brace put Manchester City ahead against Dinamo.
When Castagne found the back of the net in the second half, there were doubts. Not just because of VAR, but also because no-one believed that this could happen. Papu Gomez was initially adjudged to be off, but VAR overruled it and much to every Calcio fan’s joy, Atalanta were on their way.
The line-up included a back three, which was signed for a combined fee of €7.5m. The wingbacks, Gosens and Castagne, set Atalanta back much the same. The Belgian, in particular, had arrived for a meagre €900,000 in the summer of 2017.
It had cost them €13.5m to bring Marten de Roon back from Middlesbrough in the summer of 2017, while Remo Freuler arrived from Swiss side Luzern for little less than €2m in the winter of 2016. Add to that Pasalic on loan and Gomez’s capture from Metalist Kharkiv for a fee of around €4m, and Atalanta will get more money from reaching the knockout stages than they spent on 10 of the players that started in Ukraine.
That’s a reflection of where La Dea have come from. When the final whistle blew at the Metalist Stadium, there was not a single person who had any contempt for what Atalanta had achieved.
The last time Milan went this far in the Champions League was during the 2013-14 campaign. Inter’s most recent foray into the last 16 was back in 11-12. But last night, a lesser-known side made San Siro their temporary home because their own stadium was not equipped for UEFA regulations to take part in the competition. No-one expected them to come this far, but here they are.