The Nerazzurri are on a club-record six-game winning streak after a poor start, and now lie just five points behind the Serie A leaders
2 December ~ For Atalanta supporters the first 100 days of the Serie A season have been a surreal experience. It began as a nightmare, 3-0 down after 30 minutes at home to Lazio on the opening day. They rallied but still lost 4-3. Exactly one month later came a shattering last-minute 1-0 defeat at home to Palermo, one of the league’s feeblest teams. It left Atalanta in the relegation zone with three points from five games and not having played any of the top teams.
And yet this defeat was the turning point in a season which now sees Atalanta in the top five with 28 points from 14 games, both club records in Serie A. Twenty-five have been accrued in the last nine games, more than any other team in Europe’s five major leagues. These nine games have seen the same number of goals conceded as in the first 30 minutes against Lazio, only one of them, 769 minutes ago, from open play.
After the Palermo defeat the knives were out for coach Gian Piero Gasperini, but club president Antonio Percassi stood by his man. Against Serie A newcomers Crotone, Gasperini introduced burly 21-year-old striker Andrea Petagna and he scored within three minutes in an easy 3-1 win. He has kept his place and is developing into the kind of unselfish targetman the team have lacked for years.
The Crotone win gave Gasperini breathing space. For the the next game, against Napoli, he gave youth its head, though midfielder Franck Kessié was suspended after a red card against Crotone. In came defender Mattia Caldara, right-wing-back Andrea Conti and midfielder Roberto Gagliardini, all 22 and products of the club’s youth system. Petagna’s goal after eight minutes secured a 1-0 win and since then only Fiorentina have taken a point off the Nerazzurri.
Inter, Pescara, Genoa, Sassuolo, Roma and Bologna have been defeated in a record-equalling six-game winning streak. Though Inter and Roma were only beaten by very late penalties, the run has been the result of excellent football played by a group of players who have become a team in every sense of the word. Many believe that the second half against Roma was the best any Atalanta team has ever played. And supporters of top clubs will rarely know the joy we felt as we left the stadium after that game.
The star is 29-year-old captain Alejandro “Papu” Gómez, a gifted Argentinian player who almost invites rash tackles in the penalty area. But it is the young players who have given the team its verve. Many Italian coaches do not trust young players. Gasperini does and has been richly rewarded so far. They say coaches count 20 per cent towards a result, but with Gasperini it is much more if he has players prepared to follow him. These players do, and several have matured enormously in just two months.
Kessié, who will be 20 this month, is the pick. He is a force of nature, almost impossible to knock off the ball. He has great vision and an eye for goal. He might even be a better prospect than Paul Pogba. Alongside him Roberto Gagliardini has also surprised everybody with the progress he has made, as has elegant defender Mattia Caldara. Now the vultures are beginning to circle. We are hoping that the team will not be broken up in January, as it was this year. Percassi is sitting on a gold mine, but it will be worth more in June.
Meanwhile, Juventus await in Turin on Saturday. Were it not for El Clásico, it might have been the match of the weekend in Europe. A wounded Juventus after their 3-1 defeat to Genoa are only five points ahead of Atalanta. Probably it will be the end of the unbeaten run, but unlike in recent years this time it is not a foregone conclusion. Besides, Atalanta, who are being compared here to Leicester but are not about to emulate them, have already won their Scudetto by beating Napoli, Inter and Roma in the space of 50 days. Richard Mason