In the accepted wisdom of Champions League football, the first leg of a knockout tie is supposed to be a cagey affair. Add an Italian team into the mix, and we are usually told to expect the soporific to drowsily outweigh the spectacular. But this Atalanta side is ripping up the book of clichés about Italian teams in Europe one by one in the most audacious fashion.
Having waited more than a quarter of a century for their return to continental action, they have played like a club that is going to enjoy itself no matter what. And they have stuck to their ideals when - after a dreadful start to the group stages - it would surely have been easier to take a more pragmatic approach. Neutrals everywhere will raise a glass of something sparkling to such a refreshing attitude. It is in serious danger of taking the boys from Bergamo into the last eight of one of the most prestigious competitions in the game.
Anyone who hasn’t been watching Giampiero Gasperini’s troops might have been surprised by the fare they dished up at San Siro, but those of us who have been paying closer attention know exactly what they are capable of. With Papu Gomez and Josip Ilicic pulling the strings, almost anything is possible. Yes, they offer chances that better sides will punish, but boy do they display a positive mental attitude in their constant pursuit of goalscoring opportunities.
There was some sloppiness at the back, but we can surely cut them some slack for that. They occasionally risked playing themselves into trouble, but that is part of their attraction too. From time to time, their ambition to play in swashbuckling style sees them overreach but - in a sport which can so often be stultifying - there is something to admire even in that imperfection. And when it works, like it did against Valencia, it is a joy to watch.
With Robin Gosens and two-goal hero Hans Hateboer bombing forward at every opportunity - even when they were miles clear - there is a carefree swagger to the Bergamaschi that feels like an antidote to so much modern football. While the majority of the teams remaining in the competition seem shackled by their hopes of winning it, Atalanta are unencumbered by such concerns. They are just enjoying the ride - and so should we.
Make no mistake, though, it doesn’t happen by chance. This is a team that works hard, has a plan and a group of players that buys into it. They could be awkward customers for a rival with greater expectations should they progress to the quarter-finals.
That slight doubt, of course, is the flipside to their aggressive, attacking attitude - it does leave the door open to a potential turnaround in the second leg. They handed the Spanish side a fair few chances in this tie and it means they could concede some goals in the away game. However, who would bet against the boys in blue and black scoring more of their own?
There’s something that even Italian teams with bigger histories could learn from the Atalanta approach. They are no respecters of reputation and go out to try to impose their play on an opponent - not always with success - regardless of who they might be. This contrasts with the safety-first approach which has sometimes seen Serie A sides go out of Europe with a whimper rather than a bang. If you believe, you may not always achieve, but it is at least fun trying.
The whole house might come crashing down - much as it did earlier in the competition - in the return match of this clash, for sure. But you get the feeling that this team will have stuck to its principles whatever the outcome might be. They are swinging for the fences in Bergamo these days and - regardless of the end result - it is a pleasure to watch.
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