“The only possible explanation is they had a blackout and couldn’t see the screen. Either that or they just closed their eyes and looked the other way.” Gian Piero Gasperini was furious. After an astonishing season, Atalanta fell short of their first major target of 2019 and their first major trophy since the 1963 in the Rome rain on Wednesday night. A 2-0 Coppa Italia final loss to Lazio. Although the Champions League qualification still remains a strong possibility, Gasperini had a right to be angry.
Controversy arrived in the 26th minute. Although Lazio had more of the play, Atalanta manufactured the halves’ clearest chance. Marten de Roon’s shot glanced off Bastos’ arm raised and onto the post before a second de Roon effort was blocked and Duvan Zapata’s close range header bounced wide. All in a desperate few seconds. As a furious Gasperini pointed out afterwards, the handball and resulting penalty might have been missed by the referee previously but given that VAR was in use and considering the interpretation of the handball rule throughout the season, the absence of a referral was baffling.
Already booked, Bastos may have been sent off as a result of any VAR intervention and was withdrawn, much to the Angolan defender’s bemusement, seven minutes later. Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi explained “I had to sacrifice him because he was on a yellow card and I couldn’t run the risk against a side like Atalanta.” Although lacking consistent quality, it was a dramatic evening at the Olimpico complete with heavy downpours, scuffles between teams and a raucous crowd which included over 20,000 Atalanta supporters. Lazio won it late on. Just four minutes after coming on Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s 82nd minute header from Lucas Leiva’s corner put Lazio in front before Joaquin Correa’s brilliant run and finish made it two in the final minute. Atalanta overcommitting for a late free kick and were opened up on the counter.
Having won 3-1 in Rome against Lazio ten days earlier, Atalanta were perhaps a little overawed by the occasion; their first Cup Final for a quarter of a century, and having not won a trophy since the 60s. As Thursday morning’s Gazzetta dello Sport colourfully outlined, ‘of the three tenors, only [Alejandro] Gomez sang.’ His partners, the lythe Slovenia magician Josip Ilicic and powerful striker Duvan Zapata, already tallying 22 league goals this campaign - only Fabio Quagliarella has more - were uncharastically quiet for Serie A’s top scorers. Nevertheless Gazzetta did praise the Bergamo sides ‘courage’ and said ‘the final will remain a memory to be proud of.’
Despite criticism at times this season, having dropped to the bottom of the mini-league of clubs chasing European football, Inzaghi was praised by the paper for ‘managing the team intelligently’. For the trophy presentation, Lazio’s squad all worse shirts with the number 7, this their seventh Coppa, only Roma with and Juventus with 13 now have more. Gazzetta reported that ‘the Curva Nord remained full long after the final whistle and a long time after the ceremony because nobody wanted to miss a moment, nobody wanted to miss a shred of emotion.’
Although winning either major dometic honour in this period of Juventus dominance remains a sizeable feat, it was Atalanta who ended the Old Lady’s run of four consecutive doubles with a 3-0 quarter final triumph, the last two decades have nevertheless been productive for Lazio. Not including their Super Coppa win in 2017, this is Lazio’s sixth major honour this century, three more than AC Milan or Roma and four more than Napoli.
‘Lazio Fly’ said Gazzetta’s front page, ‘Biancocelestial’ cheered the Rome based Corriere dello Sport while Tutto Sport lead with ‘Lazio triumph, but Gasp is furious.’ Lazio president Claudio Lotito, keen to mention that this was the fifth trophy of his tenure, said afterwards; "We deserved to win and this confirms that the team has the potential to achieve great goals.” Inzaghi meanwhile highlighted, after Milinkovic-Savic’s opener, that “those who come off the bench can be more important than the starting eleven.”
Despite a slightly underwhelming league season for the club with Inzaghi’s future discussed for much of the year, Lotito explained to Rai that Inzaghi “is like an adopted son to me, I brought him from the youth team to the senior squad and has everything it takes to do well in this role. It’s true, over the course of the season there were some incidents that slowed our progress, for example some injuries.” Only Sven Goran Eriksson now has more trophies than Inzaghi as Lazio boss.
Gasperini however raged in the aftermath over the non-penalty decision and lack of VAR. "It's one of the ugliest pages in the history of our football, a never-ending shame." Gazzetta reported, “Someone will have to justify and will have to explain to us why they have made fun of us like that... it is a crazy decision. For me this is one of the ugliest pages of Italian football.” Atalanta president Antonio Percassi agreed. "It is unacceptable, it would have changed the game. How do you deny a penalty like that?” Both Lotito and Inzaghi seemed to suggest they agreed. “I am accustomed to respecting the verdict on the field when it is deserved,” said Lotito evasively while the Lazio coach conceded “I will admit, that was a penalty,” although he also stated “Andrea Masiello should’ve been sent off for a foul on Correa.”
While Atalanta’s frustration is justified, they were perhaps unfortunate that Bostos’ arm merely glanced the ball onto the post rather than blocking the shot outright, their season remains a triumph. Having beaten Juve to make Wednesday night’s final, an achievement in itself, they currently sit three points clear of Milan and Roma in fourth place with just two games left of the Serie A season. A direct route into the Champions League group stages seems likely. Next week’s trip to Juve will be tough, although the Champions have won just once in seven games across all competitions as their season peters out, before a home tie with midtable Sassuolo on the final day.
With an unfashionable club, and comparatively little resources, Gasperini has moulded Atalanta into a free-wheeling attacking yet effective outfit, constantly reworking his squad as his best players are sold to bigger Italian clubs. The club’s prolific academy and astute scouting are also key. Remarkably this will be the Bergamo club’s third consecutive top seven finish in Serie A, and perhaps their second top four finish in three years, having only finished higher than seventh once since the early 60s beforehand. A sixth place in 1989. Whatever happens to Gasperini and the Bergamo club in the next two weeks, they have already achieved a great deal.
Inzaghi meanwhile deserves more credit than he has received, having kept pace with the top four for almost the entire year, returned the club to Europe and captured the Coppa Italia. Nevertheless it remains to be seen if Lotito’s ‘adopted son’ will be part of the Lazio family come the start of next season.
by Adam White