Champions League Tips: Making the case for...Atalanta
In our final look at the leading contenders for the Champions League, Mark O'Haire argues that Serie A's great entertainers are dangerous outsiders who have been underrated by the market...
Don't dismiss record-breaking Atalanta
In an era when mega money and inflated finances have a direct correlation to footballing success, it's incredibly heart-warming to see a provincial club with a genuine opportunity of ousting the European big boys, and well-capable of clinching Champions League glory.
Yes, Atalanta may herald from a small city of some 120,000 inhabitants, boast a solitary major honour (1962 Coppa Italia) across their 113-year history, operate from Serie A's 13th-highest wage budget and play in a stadium that was deemed to small and unsafe to host continental competition his season, but the boys from Bergamo are creditable challengers.
Gian Piero Gasperini's group have already surpassed their record points tally, as well as blasting a club record return for Serie A goals. La Dea have smashed 19 goals more than any of their divisional rivals, putting four past Sassuolo (twice) and Valencia (twice), five past Milan and Parma, six past Brescia, and seven past Lecce, Torino and Udinese.
With one matchday still to play, the Bergamo club have racked up an eye-watering 98 goals. Only three teams in Serie A history have scored more at this stage of the season, and the most recent of them was the Milan side of 1950-51. And it's no fluke either, with La Dea generating a phenomenal 2.11 Expected Goals (xG) per-game in Serie A outings.
Atalanta are poised to finish in the top-three for the second successive season - never before had La Dea concluded a campaign higher than fourth. They might not have the megastars to match their Champions League rivals, but Europe's most entertaining team pack a serious punch with their furious high-pressing and attack-minded system.
Gasperini's defined style
When Gasperini arrived in 2016, Atalanta were perennial relegation battlers and hadn't finished in the top half of Serie A for eight years. What's happened since then is one of the most remarkable success stories in European football with La Dea's conspicuous style winning plenty of plaudits from top-level pundits.
Outrun and outplay every opponent. Atalanta's style is clear - keep the tempo high and be sure of numerous options when attacking. Down the middle or out on the flanks, La Dea can be dangerous in many ways. A three-man defence, a four-man midfield that incorporates two wing-backs who are often on the scoresheet and then the magic up front.
There are threats from everywhere. Five players have hit double figures this season: Josip Ilicic (21), Luis Muriel (19), Duvan Zapata (19), Mario Pasalic (11) and Robin Gosens (10). Gosens is a wing-back, yet he's notched more Serie A goals than the likes of Joaquin Correa, Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Chiesa and Gonzalo Higuain. And we've not even mentioned assist-machine and skipper extraordinaire Alejandro 'Papu' Gómez...
Unfortunately, Ilicic is unlikely to be fit enough to feature in the quarter-final, but as Atalanta have shown away at Juventus recently, they're anything but a one-man team. On that occasion, the Bergamo boys were desperately unlucky to leave with only a point in a game they completely controlled. Few clubs ever dominate in Turin quite like Atalanta did.
The draw has been kind
It must be said, it's been a chaotic journey to the quarter-finals. The Italian club lost all three of their opening group games, and arrived at matchday five with a solitary point to their name. Trading at eye-popping prices to qualify, let alone take top title honours, Atalanta completed the unthinkable by winning their final two fixtures to secure a knockout berth.
Now, just two games from the Champions League final, Gasperini's group find themselves in the weaker half of the draw. First, they'll face a PSG side with only two cup finals under their competitive belts since March, as well as missing injured Kylian Mbappe and suspended Angel Di Maria, and then it's either RB Leipzig or Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals.
The Champions League hasn't been a competition where a dark horse can go the distance in quite some time. But these are far from normal times, and this Atalanta side have an incredible shot at upsetting the apple cart. One-legged ties ensure opportunities for underdogs to thrive are rife and La Dea's draw couldn't have been kinder in that regard.
It doesn't require a huge imagination to see the fairytale continuing. It would be a deserved gift to one of the Italian cities to have suffered worst from Covid-19 and all the evidence suggests Atalanta possess the tools to play above their current offering at 11.00 in the Champions League outright market.