On 34 points when otherwise it would be 40, Atalanta now face their biggest challenge in ensuring League survival. Rob Paton writes.
“The absences will cause problems, but this group can make up for them because we have a moral strength as well as a technical one. We are a strong team and we will be even stronger after these injuries,” declared Cristian Raimondi this week.
The 30-year-old defender has only made a handful of appearances for Atalanta this season. However, two of those were the Bergamo club’s previous two games, whilst he is anticipated to play this weekend for Bologna’s visit too. Raimondi is back in Coach Stefano Colantuono’s first-team plans with assurance in part because Daniele Capelli won’t be coming back for the rest of the season.
Capelli was only just back in training and recovered from damaged knee ligaments when he broke the kneecap in the same joint last Thursday. That misfortune was the defender’s second of the season, but only Atalanta’s first of three inside seven days. Three days later, striker Guido Marilungo fell awkwardly under a challenge at Inter to rupture knee ligaments and end his season and three days further on from that, German Denis strained his calf muscle to be ruled out of at least the next four League matches.
Whilst having been without Capelli for most of the season already and, as L’Eco di Bergamo claims, having only ever had two rounds of action through the entire season where no more than one player was on the treatment table, Atalanta’s perceived shift into a crisis now centres on who is unavailable this time.
Indeed, it is the lack of attacking options that is drawing anxiety at the club, particularly when the team’s most winnable fixtures from an otherwise difficult run-in are their next three - a trip to Cagliari sandwiched between home ties with Bologna and Siena. Without Denis and Marilungo, the Orobici go into these games minus strikers who have scored 19 of the side’s 31 League goals between them and assisted a further four. Whilst more than two-thirds of the team’s statistical attacking threat is gone, so too is the style of play that Denis and Marilungo offer.
Replacement Manolo Gabbiadini’s promise is great - as his Italy Under-21 record demonstrates - but his ability to hold up the ball, work opposition defenders or even provide the same work-rate than either Denis or Marilungo are traits not yet developed in the youngster’s game. Denis admitted himself that Gabbiadini has more potential than he does experience.
Indeed, it is interesting to note two particular statistics that Denis’ centre-back occupation style is directly accountable for. Atalanta build up the fewest amount of play down the centre of the pitch from any team in Serie A, whilst only four other sides in the Division have registered more shots on goal from central areas. Argentine Denis not only draws his opposing centre-backs together to narrow their back-line and create space out wide, but then he is ensuring space either for himself or teammates, so that any crosses to come from those freed up wide areas are then converted into an attempt on goal.
In Atalanta’s favour is, as Raimondi puts it, their determination as a group. Indeed, from summer 2011’s events that led to captain Cristiano Doni’s effective forced retirement and hit the team with a -6 points penalty to Capelli’s initial injury in the autumn, the team’s start to the season could have been a whole lot worse, had their belief been anything other than strong.
Coupled with an impressive home record this term - only Juventus and Milan have won at the Atleti Azzurri d’Italia - and in their approach to facing sides such as Roma and Inter - the former a 4-1 win, the latter’s 0-0 result described by players afterwards as an opportunity missed - La Dea have perhaps like no other side this season demonstrated bravado against otherwise low expectations.
Yet, even as a side who has had its fair share of injuries this term, is the triple blow of Capelli, Marilungo and in particular Denis - all preceded too by Matteo Brighi’s injury - going to be too much of a psychological and tactical hurdle for the club in its most crucial month of the season?
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