Coppa Italia: Finalists / Team rating: [10/10] / Top scorer: Duvan Zapata (23) / Europe: Europa League qualifying play-offs
Atalanta made history this year, as Gian Piero Gasperini captivated the world with his attractive attacking football, writes Sam Wilson.
Atalanta finished the 2018-19 Serie A season in third, their best ever result and above all securing their first Champions League campaign.
At the start of the season, Atalanta crashed out of the Europa League in the play-off qualifying round, losing to FC Copenhagen on penalties. This did not bode well for the team’s morale at such an early stage in the season and this, along with Josip Ilicic’s mystery illness, hit them hard in those opening weeks.
Prior to the league season commencing, a Europa League challenge appeared to be on the cards for Gasperini’s side, but pushing for the top four seemed utterly improbable.
Atalanta’s biggest summer purchase came in the form of a two-year loan for Sampdoria striker Duvan Zapata, which included a clause for Atalanta to permanently sign the Colombian. Zapata proved instrumental for Atalanta’s success, netting 23 goals in Serie A, a tally only bested by Sampdoria’s veteran Italian forward Fabio Quagliarella. The former Napoli and Samp giant outgunned the likes of Juventus’ €110m signing Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as last year’s joint top scorers, Inter’s Mauro Icardi and Lazio striker Ciro Immobile.
Atalanta’s season started poorly, with spirits dampened after their European exit. They won just one match in the opening eight rounds and things were looking rocky for the Bergamo side. However, what came next was a 30-game period where the team won 23 matches and stormed into the Champions League places carrying a true underdog spirit.
The final eight rounds were pivotal to their success, although it looked unlikely with fixtures lined up against Inter, Napoli, Lazio and Juventus. Victories over Napoli and Lazio, plus draws away to Inter and Juventus meant that three victories and a tie in their other four matches were enough.
In addition to their league success, Atalanta reached the final of Coppa Italia, defeating Juventus 3-0 in the quarter-finals, but losing out to Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio in the final at the Stadio Olimpico. Perhaps if Gasperini’s squad did not have such an intense final run-in in Serie A, they could have given more in the Final, but with such a small squad and budget, their achievements were simply astonishing.
The Coach: Gian Piero Gasperini
Gasperini’s experience and tactical class showed with his performance at the helm of Atalanta this season. He coaxed some star performances from his squad that propelled the club to a surprise third place finish. It showed just what he can do when entrusted with making his vision work.
Player of the Year: Duvan Zapata
Atalanta had many fantastic individual performers this year and, even better, they all worked well as a cohesive unit. Duvan Zapata, however, stands out with a 23-goal tally in Serie A, chipping in with a further seven assists for a combined total of thirty goal contributions in 32 starts and five substitute appearances in the league.
Highlight: Napoli 1-2 Atalanta
With six games left of the Serie A season, Atalanta travelled to second-placed Napoli. Gasperini’s side fell behind in the first half when Gianluca Mancini scored an own goal. However, a 69th-minute equaliser from Duvan Zapata and late winner from Chelsea loaner Mario Pasalic gave Atalanta a vital three points that ended up being the difference between Champions League and Europa League, but above all it gave them belief.
Nightmare: Atalanta 0-0 Empoli
It was like a replay of the two Europa League preliminary round legs against FC Copenhagen. Somehow, 90 minutes of absolute domination failed to make a dent in the relegation strugglers, as Atalanta huffed and puffed, but the walls did not come down. Between misses, the woodwork and a record-breaking 17 Bartlomiej Dragowski saves, it felt like fate was conspiring against them.
Did You Know?
- Atalanta were the most prolific side in Serie A on 77 goals, comfortably outscoring the next highest teams in Napoli (74), Juventus (70) and Roma (66).
- Duvan Zapata scored 23 goals in 50 shots on target, making him one of the most accurate forwards in the division.
- Atalanta, alongside Genoa, are the only two sides that Juventus failed to beat this season, with an additional Coppa Italia triumph too.