If the Serie A season had started after lockdown, this would have been a top of the table clash. It speaks volumes, however, that it was much more of a surprise for Milan to be setting such a pace than it was for Atalanta. Their match in the eerily quiet San Siro told us how far one team had come and the journey still facing the other.
That the Rossoneri have made progress under Stefano Pioli - with additions of no little note like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer - is undeniable. The resurgence earned their coach a deserved contract extension in a U-turn well worthy of the soap opera the club has appeared in recent times. Why overhaul everything when you actually have some decent foundations in place anyway? Don’t wreck it Ralf Rangnick felt like a pragmatic decision which probably suited everyone involved.
There was a spell of about 20 years from the early 1990s when a visit of the boys from Bergamo was a pretty much guaranteed home win for the Milanese giants, but those days are long gone. More recent times have confirmed the Bergamaschi as one of the most glorious realities of Italian football. It has coincided with a pretty shambolic spell in the post-Silvio Berlusconi age at one of Europe’s most successful sides. Under the Friday night lights, though, there was definitely more hope than despair for once.
A lot of the credit for that must go to Pioli, although Rino Gattuso might be looking on thinking what wonders he could have done with some of the new arrivals at the club. It doesn’t feel like he has done anything revolutionary, simply given a chaotic set-up a decent structure and shape. Since football returned, Hakan Calhanoglu has looked like a different player. The reason according to him? He is playing in his preferred trequartista role - who would have thought it?
This more gentle evolution is probably exactly what Milan needed. You could see in this game that the presence of Ibra has inspired those around him to give a little more and to think a little more of themselves. If anyone was going to give the red and black devils a bit more fire in their bellies, it was probably him.
It is more than that, of course. Alongside belief has come a bit of stability and a growing confidence acquired with each positive result. No wonder they decided not to rip everything up this summer and start again. Financially, too, let’s be honest that it probably makes more sense to carry out a smaller scale restyling under Pioli than might otherwise have taken place.
It was enough to stand toe to toe with one of Italy’s best at the moment and make them sweat for most of their 90 minutes. Yes, there were spells where the slick Atalanta machine threatened to sweep them aside, but there were also periods where they more than held their own. If you remember the 5-0 hammering from earlier this season, such a recovery hardly seemed possible in the space of one - undeniably lengthy - campaign.
As for Papu Gomez and company, they were a little below their best for this encounter, which again tells us much about what we have come to expect from them. Maybe even they don’t believe - despite Juve’s setback in Udine - that the Scudetto is a serious prospect. The way they are keeping Josip Ilicic wrapped up would suggest that the Champions League is quite heavily on their mind.
That sentence says everything about the amazing story which has unfolded at the club in recent times. To have pushed the Bianconeri so close in the league - and it might have been closer without a couple of handball penalties - would be a big enough achievement for a side of their size. The fact that they are being whispered of as sneaky outsiders for the biggest competition in the continent is absolutely incredible. We think of the Champions League as a closed shop for the big boys only, but Atalanta are rattling on that door with a wonderful disregard for the established order.
Indeed, Friday night showed us that, ultimately, there is room for teams to rise and fall above and below their traditional positions. Milan took a step towards the Europa League which they would historically have thought beneath themselves, while Gian Piero Gasperini’s side will be in Europe’s top competition, where they have looked more and more at home. Between them, they dished up an entertaining encounter where everyone could take away a positive. La Dea looks increasingly divine with each passing game and - if this side can be held together - could be on the verge of more special moments. And the Rossoneri? They might finally be on the right track - if they show a bit of patience and good sense in how they rebuild. Who knows, they could even catch up to Atalanta one day.