The latest chapter in Atalanta’s meteoric rise under Gian Piero Gasperini begins on Wednesday night as they take on 13-time European champions Real Madrid for the first time in their history.
Under Gasperini, The Goddess have evolved from a relative greenhorn of the European circuit to a genuine powerhouse in the Champions League, reaching the quarter-finals in their maiden campaign last term, and following on with another appearance in the knockout rounds.
Real Madrid by contrast stuttered to the round-of-16 by the barest of margins after a chastening group stage experience, but they remain royalty in this competition and the most successful club in continental football.
There are signs Los Blancos are just starting to click into gear under Zinedine Zidane after four La Liga wins on the spin, and they enter this match with odds of 16/1 with Sky Bet to go all the way and add a 14th title to their trophy cabinet. Atalanta, meanwhile, are priced at 5/4 to win this individual duel in Bergamo.
Atalanta’s only other meeting with Spanish opposition in Europe resulted in that 8-4 aggregate win over Valencia last season, but there are reasons beyond their intense proclivity for attacking football that Zidane should be wary of.
One only has to peruse the Serie A table from last term to know the sheer devastation of Atalanta’s attack. They netted an eye-watering 98 goals in 2019/20. To put that into some perspective: Juventus only netted 76. Indeed, Gasperini has created a side who attack with froth-mouthed relish and filter through defences with liquid ease.
Of course, it helps to have finishers of Duvan Zapata’s clinical prowess; the Colombian set the highest expected goals tally (xG) in this season’s group stage (4.28). But, the loss of playmaker grandmaster Papu Gomez, who upped sticks in January after a bust-up with Gasperini, has been a significant blow.
Gomez has been the chief orchestrator in Atalanta’s rise to prominence, and his creative dominance has elevated The Goddess’ attack to a world-class level. They have other players in the side capable of unlocking doors and making things happen, Mario Pasalic and Remo Freuler to name a couple, but certainly not to the degree of Gomez.
With the diminutive Argentine, only Barcelona (18) created more big chances than Atalanta (16) in the group stages, with nine of those falling to Zapata, who had more than any other player. Gomez, for his part, created a competition-best five big chances in the groups.
It is no surprise, then, that Atalanta score at such an alarming rate. They don’t just attack by throwing bodies forward, but they attack with purpose, in cyclical waves of frictionless fluidity. Whether Gasperini can replicate that level of precision without Gomez will be the true acid test of his side’s capabilities without their former fulcrum.
Gasperini’s backline may not be armour-plated and impenetrable, as Liverpool’s sojourn to Bergamo would attest to, but the Italian has got his defenders closing down with the persistence of a gumshoe and launching into tackles with gusto.
No player has encapsulated this mode of defensive tenacity more than Juventus loanee Cristian Romero, who made more interceptions than any other player in the group stage (24), while he has also won the most aerial duels (33) among players left in this season’s competition.
But, Atalanta’s line of defence starts further up the pitch; only Rafael of Istanbul Basaksehir (21) registered more tackles than Freuler (19) in the groups, while Romero (12) ranked third among centre-backs. The players have clearly been receptive to Gasperini’s press-and-possess methods.
So, it’s not just about the attack for Atalanta. Granted, none of their 15 Champions League games have ended goalless, but their clean sheet at Anfield earlier this season, at a point when Liverpool were firing on all cylinders, points towards a defence capable of blunting even the most ferocious of attacks.
It should be noted that since the start of last season, though, their matches have produced 53 goals (27 for, 26 against), at an average of 3.5 per game, so expect goals at both ends of the pitch. But one thing is for certain: Atalanta won’t give Real Madrid even a millisecond to breathe.
Playing at such intensity can, of course, wear any opposition out, which may explain why Atalanta usually strike late on. Of Atalanta’s 17 goals scored in the group stages, seven came in the second half at a rate of 70%, the highest percentage among the 16 teams left in the competition.
It’s like Marcelo Bielsa’s infamous ‘murderball’ in practice. So, if there is one word to sum Atalanta up, it is ‘relentless’. Across the pitch, they will close down opposition players with obsessive zeal and then attack with that same level of commitment, even if it is to the detriment of their own shape sometimes.
But, they know no other way of playing, it’s an all-out muck-or-nettles approach that has got them this far and continues to overwhelm teams when practised correctly. Zidane’s job will be to stem the flow and keep his side alert for 90 minutes, particularly in the second half when levels of focus naturally wane.
This Atalanta side have entered a new phase post-Gomez, but Gasperini has proven resourceful in the market and an astute tactician, and it would be foolish to write this side off in the Champions League on that alone.