Adam White

Marathon Runners

Adam White
Marathon Runners

This article was also featured on this week’s Onside Inzaghi Podcast.

Last week may have been the best in Atalanta's history. A crucial 2-1 away win at Napoli on Monday underlined their status as a genuine force in Serie A, Thursday night saw a dramatic comeback to beat Fiorentina to make the Coppa Italia final before a nervy but potentially era defining win over Udinese this weekend edged the Bergamo club above Milan and above Roma and into the Champions League spots. As Gazzetta dello Sport’s headline on Tuesday morning read, ‘the fairy tale continues’.

Momentum has been building in Bergamo for sometime. Despite the furore surrounding their potential fourth placed finish this term heightened by the prospect of automatic Champions League group stage football, the club managed the feat in 2017. Then, however, fourth place only equalled Europa League qualification but, despite a 14 point gap to Napoli in third, traditional heavyweights such as Lazio, Inter and Milan were conquered. The Milanese clubs finished nine and ten points adrift.

A creditable seventh place the following year was achieved despite European commitments, all the more commendable given how many inexperienced sides struggle with balancing both European and domestic competitions. Having dominated a group which the included Lyon and Everton, going undefeated and routing Everton 5-1 at Goodison Park, it took a narrow loss by the odd goal in seven over two legs with Borussia Dortmund to knock the Atalantini out.

Recent consistent on-field success can perhaps be largely attributed to two men. The first being Argentine playmaker Alejandro “Papu” Gomez. Initially standing out at Catania between 2010 and 2013, the club on the precipice of descending down the leagues due to a match-fixing scandal, Gomez joined Atalanta in 2014 after a season in Ukraine with the similarly doomed Metalist Kharkiv. Conflict in the region rather than Kharkiv going out of business brought Gomez back to Italy however. “I was scared,” Gomez explained in 2017, “I saw guys with machine guns in the streets. I couldn’t go on living like that. Fortunately Atalanta wanted me.”

Atalanta’s top scorer in 15/16 and 16/17, the skillful and waspish Gomez, now club captain, quickly became a talismanic presence and has remarkably maintained his irrepressible, inspirational performances ever since his return to Italy. This season Gomez has enjoyed a freer role behind rangy Slovenia magician Josip Ilicic and powerful forward, and Serie A’s second top scorer this campaign, Duvan Zapata, usually a 3-4-2-1 set up. A mix of flare, guile and force, Atalanta have become Serie A’s great entertainers. Losing just twice in all competitions since December 22nd, Gomez, Zapata and co won 6-2 at Sassuolo, put 5 past Frosinone, beat Inter 4-1, drew 3-3 with Roma and Fiorentina and beat Juventus 3-0 in the Coppa Italian quarter final while managing a 2-2 draw with the Old Lady in Serie A. Perhaps unsurprisingly Atalanta are the league’s top scorers; level with Juventus on 68 goals.

Joining in Summer 2016 from Genoa and instigating that 4th place finish in his first season, Gian Piero Gasperini is, alongside Gomez, Atalanta’s main catalyst for their head-turning rise. Having initially returned Genoa to Serie A in 2007 and taken the club into Europe via a miraculous 5th place finish with the aid of Diego Milito’s 26 league goals in 2009, Gasperini left for Inter. The now 61 year old Italian wasn’t given the merest hint of a chance leading the Nerazzurri at the start of the 11/12 campaign however and a disastrous five game spell ended by mid September with just one league point gained. Gasperini’s attempts to switch Inter to his favoured three man defence, broken promises on transfers from the board and an unfavourable Milanese press pack, who saw Gasperini as too ‘provincial’, conspired against him. A humiliating 3-1 loss to Novara ended his reign.

Having revitalised his career at Palermo and Genoa after a year out of the sport, paramount to his success with Atalanta is Gasperini’s ability to remould his team around swathes of big name sales and alter his formula to great success. This summer saw attacking midfielder Bryan Cristante join Roma and influential wingback Leonardo Spinazzola move to Juve while Italian international centre back Mattia Caldara went to AC Milan before Zapata replaced Andrea Petagna who had developed a strong understanding with Gomez in attack. Key midfielders Andrea Conti and Franck Kessie left for Milan during the previous summer while compatriot Roberto Gagliardini joined Inter the January before.

Crucially however, despite widespread European interest, Atalanta have held onto Gomez - who’s ever changing captain’s armband once featured the Pro Evolution Soccer master league team: Ximelez, Stremer, Espimas and co. Although Gasperini has used the Argentine all over his attack during their three year partnership, the coach has continued to cajole davatsteing from his captain. Aside from his leadership and orchestration of play, under Gasperini Gomez’s 102 league games (at time of writing) have brought 28 goals and 29 assists. And it was again Gomez who grabbed his team by their collective collars and dragged them towards three potentially pivotal victories this week.

After the Udinese win, Gazzetta dello Sport referred to Atalanta as ‘the Ajax of Italy’. The paper pointing out that although they were perhaps fortunate to beat Udinese - a Marten de Roon 82nd minute penalty breaking the deadlock in an eventual 2-0 win - in 2019 only Juventus have more points than Gasperini’s men despite the fact that their pre-season began at the start of July head of Europa League qualifiers. Tuesday’s Gazzetta likened Gasperini’s side to a marathon runner: ‘the more you run, the better you feel and the more you want to run’ and said that making the Champions League would be as good as winning Serie A. Despite those wins de Roon remained cautious, explaining that “the next game can be decisive for the Champions League but we take these three points, which are worth a lot. The performance was not one of the best, but we never gave up."

Although a fiercely proud club, fan groups send new Atalanta shirts to new babies born in the region - the message being: ‘you were born in Bergamo, this is you club,’ success has been limited for Atalanta. Their only major trophy was the Coppa Italia win in 1963 and the closest they came since was a 3-0 final defeat to Fiorentina over two legs in 1996 while the fourth place in 2017 was their highest ever Serie A finish. As a result this team is arguably the best side in the club’s history, yet they still have much to play for. Beyond potential trophies and Champions League football, by 2022 the club will have a new stadium to replace their charmingly decrepit Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia, a relic of the 1920s.

Gasperini described the Coppa semi final win as a "wonderful feeling, seeing the crowd so happy is a great satisfaction," while remaining positive over his team’s continued success. “Coppa Italia or Champions League? I don't want to choose, I prefer to play for them all, we’re hoping to bring home at least one prize.” Meanwhile, club president Antonio Percassi explained “I always think of survival, that’s the basic goal, the rest is extraordinary.” With just four league games to play plus a trip to the Olimpico next month and fears of relegation in the past, hopefully for Gasperini, his Atalanta marathon runners will keep running for a while yet.

by Adam White

image - Atalanta’s last trophy win.