Champions League football will be played at San Siro in February after all, but it won’t be Inter or Milan standing to attention as the theme plays out. That honour goes to Lombardy’s third club, Atalanta.
This is arguably the biggest sporting competition on the planet. The group stages offer untold wealth, but when a team makes it to the knock-out stages, the eyes of the world are well and truly on them. The draw against Valencia was perhaps one of the best they could have hoped for, so could they go even further than the Round of 16? Forget the Miracle of Castel di Sangro, who is writing this book?
The reason Atalanta’s progress has been even more stunning is that their success came from an impossible position as the odds at Betway confirmed. Due to their usual home of Azzurri d'Italia being renovated, they had to play at San Siro, just under an hour down the road. This was not an advantage as many may think, because the Cathedral of football might be impressive, but the simple fact is that Atalanta fans do not worship here. They prefer the close, confined and aggressive nature of their chapel in Bergamo. This was not home and it showed.
Inexperience more than just location saw the side from Bergamo lose their first three games. Dinamo Zagreb beat them heavily 4-0, before they lost 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk. Finally, Manchester City ripped them to pieces, beating them 5-1, and for many the dream was over as their odds of going through at Betway went through the roof. The draw against the Sky Blues in the return game seemed to condemn them, although this is where the miracle happened and two wins in their final games saw them incredibly go through. All of this has been conducted whilst they also impress in Serie A, remaining sixth, and without star striker Duvan Zapata for months.
Watching on were Inter. Barcelona and Dortmund proved difficult, but the group was lost on day one with a home draw against Slavia Prague. Antonio Conte can be happy to sit in a position where his team are challenging for the Scudetto and are among the favourites at Betway, but this simply compounds the fact that his team fell away. They may have more resources and more quality, but they are still in the process of building the unity and belief.
These are the elements that Milan have been missing for years now and it must have been hard watching Atalanta at San Siro in the Champions League, whilst they could not even make the Europa League this term. The Rossoneri are the rich schoolboy who simply cannot be bothered, Atalanta look like the child who won a scholarship and are making the best of it.
The irony of this success is that they have done this by moving away from their normal model. Gian Piero Gasperini has been tactically brilliant and coached them in an aggressive and supremely innovative manner but they have recruited well. Normally a club to focus on their incredible youth system, they have had to fill some gaps with experience.
Therefore, they have brought in players who may have been discarded or undervalued elsewhere and mixed this with the few youngsters who have come through. The jewel in the crown is that they have an incredible group of under-20s coming through, one of the best they have ever had, and therefore the future is also incredibly bright.
Atalanta have proven that they are the pride of Lombardy for many reasons, not just because of the Champions League, as that is simply the icing on the cake. They have a great coach undervalued elsewhere, they have a mix of youth and experience with a new generation offering much promise. They have a newly-renovated stadium, which offers their superb and loyal fans another reason to be proud. The Atalanta model works and has been building up to this for years.