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La Dea's Rise to European Darling

A small club from a working-class city in northern Italy has captured the imagination this season. Atalanta’s high-scoring habit has been a breath of fresh air in the typically defensive Serie A, and after a favorable draw in the Champions League, this lively team could conceivably go all the way and earn European glory.

Rebuilding

Hailing from Bergamo, Lombardy, Atalanta has always been a modest club. Merely a decade ago, the side was toiling away in Serie B, and upon promotion back to the top flight, midtable was on the menu for the foreseeable future.

That was all about to change, however, when Gian Piero Gasperini took over as head coach in the summer of 2016. Not afraid to give youth a chance, Gasperini weeded out the older players in favor of local youngsters fit and hungry enough to execute his intense style. It worked out perfectly, with La Dea finishing fourth in his first year.

Rise to Fame

As time went on and Gasperini was able to build a squad befitting his philosophy, the world began to take notice. In 2018/19, Atalanta finished third and qualified for this season’s Champions League for the first time in spectacular fashion. Gasperini’s style of play is as complex as it is beautiful. Unlike the pressing systems of some of his peers, the Italian’s approach isn’t based on surrendering possession in an attempt to pounce on opposition errors, but rather, he actively wants his team to control the ball whenever possible.

In Josip Iličić and Papu Gómez, the Nerazzurri boast two of Europe’s most creative attackers, while Duván Zapata and Luis Muriel are deadly finishers. Playing with three at the back and two marauding wingbacks further upfield, Atalanta’s midfielders drop into spaces vacated when their defenders venture forward, meaning that despite the Italian club’s incredible attacking output—the best in Serie A—it also has one of the best defensive records. Even center backs are contributing in the attack; Atalanta effectively suffocates opponents and overwhelms them with sheer numbers, and as if that weren’t enough, the Black and Blues are also dangerous on set pieces.

Dark Horse

Bergamo was hit hardest by COVID-19 when Italy became the world’s epicenter of the outbreak, and it has made the relationship between the team and its fans even stronger. Atalanta feels an obligation to bring happiness back to the city, and what better way to do that than by going deep in the Champions League.

After an 8–4 aggregate win over Valencia in the Round of 16, Atalanta was drawn into the weaker side of the Champions League bracket, facing off against Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals. PSG hasn’t played a competitive league game since March, which makes this fixture all the more winnable for the Bergamo side. Should they get past the Parisians, either Atlético or Leipzig await—again, beatable opponents—with a berth in the final at stake. If the stars align, Atalanta could potentially cap off this fairy-tale season with an unprecedented European Cup triumph.

 

Illustration by @inakivector.

This story was featured in one of our newsletters.