Coppa Italia: Round of 16 / Team rating: [9/10] / Top scorer: Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata (18) / Europe: Champions League quarter-final
Atalanta inspired everyone both on and off the field this season, in Italy and Europe, as Owen Diana pays tribute to club that just keeps getting stronger.
After a 2018-19 campaign that was the best since their founding in 1907, the only way seemed to be down for Atalanta this time around. The added challenge of a Champions League debut would surely stretch the limits of a squad unaccustomed to juggling multiple competitions at once.
Yet, La Dea have been able to have their cake and eat it too. They are through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, where they will face French giants PSG. Domestically they have established a club record for points and matched last year’s third place. All the while, their spellbinding football has captivated onlookers and helped to banish Serie A’s ultra-defensive reputation.
However, such a spectacular conclusion to the campaign was not on the cards as winter approached. A 3-1 loss at home to Juventus on November 23 left the Bergamo club languishing in sixth. Meanwhile, their hopes of making it into the Champions League knockout stages were hanging by a thread after taking only one point from their opening four fixtures.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s men would go on to lose only three more times after that reverse to The Old Lady. They tore apart Valencia over two legs after securing a miraculous passage through to the Round of 16. Domestically, they went unbeaten from late January through August 1. They were absolutely unstoppable at times during that stretch, scoring for fun and dismantling even Italy’s strongest outfits.
Atalanta’s goal-scoring exploits are unlike anything seen on the peninsula since the 1950s, but this is a model club in other areas as well. They completed the initial phase of an ambitious €40m renovation on the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia in September, renamed the Gewiss Stadium. Their reputation as astute movers in the transfer market was burnished by the summer signings of Luis Muriel and Ruslan Malinovskyi.
Thanks to such sterling work off the pitch, Atalanta are in rude financial health for a club bereft of a large international fan base or oil-rich owner. Two consecutive Champions League qualifications, plus the deep run in the current edition of the tournament, will provide further funds. Even with a budget a fraction the size of the division’s traditional powerhouses, La Dea are set for sustained success at the top of the table. They have no need to sell their stars this off-season and can go into any negotiations from a position of strength.
The 2019-20 campaign saw Atalanta take huge steps towards establishing themselves amongst the continental elite, but the greatest legacy from a legendary season is social, not sporting. Their celebrations after the second leg of the triumphant Champions League tie with Valencia focused on shows of solidarity and encouragement for their home region of Bergamo, which was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A six-match winning streak after the restart provided further hope for locals that had suffered through months of trauma and hardship. Atalanta are not the first side to capture the imagination with full-throttle attacking football, but few of those teams have managed to inspire and uplift in the way La Dea have.
The Coach – Gian Piero Gasperini
Regarded as one of Italy’s most astute tactical minds since his impressive spell with Genoa in the late 2000s, Gasperini’s work in Bergamo has been nothing short of spectacular since he took over in 2016. In just a few short years, he has transformed the provincial side from also-rans into top of the table contenders. Any discussion of Gasperini usually revolves around his daring 3-4-1-2 setup. However, his assiduous man-management skills, epitomised by his expert handling of habitual substitute Luis Muriel, have really shown through this season. The mercurial Colombian struck 18 times in just 1,244 Serie A minutes.
Player of the Year – Papu Gomez
In a team that has seen multiple individuals enjoy career best years, their standout performer has been beloved captain Alejandro Gomez. Papu contributed seven goals in 2019-20, while his 16 assists established a personal record. Yet, the importance of the diminutive Argentine goes far beyond the statistics. He is the orchestrator of one of Europe’s deadliest attacks. Even though most moves run through his boots, the 32-year-old led by example with his willingness to track back. The former Catania forward also shone against the country’s heavyweights, as evidenced by his man-of-the match showings against Lazio and Juventus after the restart.
Highlights – Mauling Milan
It is an onerous task to pick out the high point of a dream season packed with lopsided victories. La Dea scored seven on three different occasions and also stuck six past Brescia following the lockdown. However, the 5-0 thrashing of Milan shortly before Christmas surpasses any of those performances. The hosts took an early advantage through a Gomez wonder strike, before a flurry of goals in an 11-minute second half spell extended the lead to four. Super-sub Muriel then found the net to sentence the Rossoneri to their worst defeat in 21 years. Imparting a historic beatdown on one of Italian football’s aristocrats represented the perfect end to a landmark 2019.
Nightmare – Paying the penalty
Atalanta were unlikely Scudetto challengers going into the Week 32 trip to the Allianz Juventus Stadium, but came so close to a monumental upset that could’ve turned the whole title race on its head. They outplayed Juve for long periods on their own turf, twice going in front through Duvan Zapata and Ruslan Malinovskyi, but just as celebrations were ramping up on the touchline, Luis Muriel clumsily stuck up an arm to block a cross and Cristiano Ronaldo converted the 90th-minute equalising penalty.
Did You Know?
• Atalanta are the first team since Juventus in 1951-52 to have three players (Muriel, Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata) with at least 15 goals in Serie A.
• La Dea were two goals away from becoming only the eighth team to score 100 or more in Serie A. Even still, their final tally of 98 is the most in the Italian top flight for 68 years.
• 15 different players scored for Atalanta this campaign. None of them are Italian.