Atalanta are everything a Champions League club will dream of being. They are also everything a smaller Italian club would want to be.
There is nothing flashy about them. A casual football fan may not even recognise them too much. But what Atalanta have done over the past year is remarkable, considering where they have come from. It is something not everyone can do. This is their first ever Champions League campaign, but the ascent has been astonishing. They were in Serie B in 2011 and reaching the Europa League Round of 16 in 2017-18 was their first UEFA participation since 1990-91.
Tonight’s Champions League opponents present another sort of dream - a pipe dream. Atalanta can be the same. But La Dea have performed a miracle without the might and power of money that Manchester City boasted of in the past decade.
Currently third in Serie A, Atalanta have lost only one league game this season, losing three in 2019 so far. They finished third last season too, despite having won just one out of their first eight games. Their 3-4-3 shape under Gian Piero Gasperini (mutating to 3-4-1-2) has troubled just about every top Italian club since last season.
They were 3-0 up at Lazio at half-time at the Stadio Olimpico this past weekend, but ended up squandering the lead to see the game end 3-3. Due to Roma, Fiorentina and Lazio themselves dropping points, they stayed in third place.
Their story is as much down to Gasperini’s tactical nous as it is down to their sound recruitment in the market. Their sporting director Giovanni Sartori has done a job that has gone under the radar, but the Italian is probably one of the best recruitment men in European football, as well as counting on probably the best youth academy in the country.
Tonight’s opponents have star names. Names that they signed by shelling out big money. Those like Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, Rodri, Kyle Walker and Bernardo Silva.
Atalanta are at the other spectrum. Duvan Zapata, Atalanta’s highest scorer, is currently on loan with an obligation to buy from Sampdoria. While the striker sustained an injury on international duty with Colombia and is unavailable for the trip to Manchester, Zapata has scored 29 goals in Serie A over the last two seasons.
Even without the Colombian, Atalanta put three past Lazio. And it is because of his tally of six league goals that Atalanta are currently the highest-scoring team in Italy.
Papu Gomez, who has scored four times and assisted three, joined the club from Metalist Kharkiv in the summer of 2014 for only €4.5m. He is currently one of the best playmakers in Serie A.
The mercurial Josip Ilicic joined the club from Fiorentina in the summer of 2017 for a fee of €5.5m. He has become a crucial part of the club’s front three, scored 16 times and assisting nine since joining.
Luis Muriel, who had a good loan spell at Fiorentina last season as a Sevilla player, joined this past summer for €18m, a spending spree Atalanta granted themselves as a reward for Champions League qualification. He has already scored five times. Ruslan Malinovskyi is already hailed as a genius signing. He scored twice for Ukraine in their recent 2-0 win over Lithuania, playing a role in taking them to the Euros next year.
The 26-year-old looked brilliant in the game against Lazio. He is expected to be a bargain for €13.75m and already attracting interest from Chelsea.
It is the midfield signings that raise eyebrows. Timothy Castagne has already become one of Europe’s best wing-backs, thanks to Atalanta’s shrewd talent hunting. The Belgian joined the club from Genk in the summer of 2017 for a fee of €6.5m. His work rate and completeness as a player has been hailed by many.
Robin Gosens, who has been one of their best players this season, joined the club from Heracles for as low as €900,000. From left wing-back, the German has assisted twice this season and scored three.
Hans Hateboer, who often keeps switching with Castagne at right wing-back, joined from Groningen for just €1m. He scored five times, assisting just as many last season. Like Castagne, he has become one of the best in his position in Italy.
Remo Freuler represents a similar story. The Swiss midfielder joined from Luzern in the January of 2016 for a fee less than €2m. His tally of 12 goals and 17 assists since joining is a reminder of how wonderful his signing was.
Defenders in Jose Palomino, Rafael Toloi, Berat Djimsiti costed a little less than €8.5m put together. They sold youth product Gianluca Mancini to Roma this past summer, but came up with another masterclass by signing Simon Kjaer on loan from Sevilla.
Over the years, the club has sold players like Franck Kessie, Bryan Cristante, Alessandro Bastoni, Roberto Gagliardini, Mattia Caldara, Daniele Baselli and Davide Zappacosta to bigger clubs. They’re replaced them with lesser known players for diminutive fees or brought more talent through the academy and have leapt ahead, despite all that.
A lot of how the players are integrated into the system is down to Gasperini’s excellence. But the way Sartori has gone about recruiting the right players for the system often goes unnoticed.
They did lose to Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk in the first two Champions League games, but it was far from a huge heartbreak for a club that isn’t meant to be here in a world full of moneybags like Manchester City. Whatever the result this evening, Atalanta have already won and the fact they are currently third in Serie A suggests the growth process isn’t finished yet.