It was always going to be a struggle. Atalanta’s last season heroics earned them the right to compete against Europe’s best in this year’s edition of the Champions League and eventually register their first ever victory in the competition after their 2-0 win against Dinamo Zagreb last night.
However, the beginning of Atalanta’s fairytale was even worse than initially anticipated, as La Dea were trashed 4-0 by the Croatians in their debut. While the result was embarrassing enough, Atalanta’s performance was arguably even more shocking, as Gian Piero Gasperini’s men were too timid, disorganized and failed to display any of the aggressive football that has been dazzling Serie A in recent years.
Despite the rocky start, Atalanta improved gradually in the next games, as their 2-1 defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk was rather unfortunate, while the 5-1 loss against Manchester City doesn’t really tell the full story.
Without a doubt, however, the turning point for La Dea was the 1-1 draw against the English champions at the San Siro, as it proved to be the confidence-booster that Gian Piero Gasperini’s men needed.
The typical aggressive style with which Atalanta approach their Serie A games was finally on display in the Champions League last night, as La Dea pinned Dinamo Zagreb in their own half from the start and dominated the game throughout the 90 minutes.
The display was indeed largely impressive, as Atalanta registered 24 shots, nine of which on target, and had 58% possession against the visitors, who were lucky not to concede more.
Surprisingly or not, Atalanta now have a real chance of making it into the knockout stages of the competition, as the Nerazzurri travel to Ukraine for a must-win clash against Shakhtar Donetsk. At the same time, the Orobici need Manchester City not to lose their visit to Dinamo in Zagreb, so the last round of the group stage promises to be a fascinating one.
The task is far from easy, as Shakhtar are a good team with significant experience in the competition and the Ukrainians demonstrated that in their 2-1 victory against La Dea in October. On the other hand, Atalanta’s lack of know-how proved decisive on the day, as Gasperini’s men took an early lead, but failed to convert the many chances they had and eventually allowed Shakhtar to equalise and score a stoppage-time winner on the counter-attack.
It should also be stated that the Ukrainian champions are very good at home, so Atalanta’s mission becomes even harder. In fact Shakhtar have only lost two of their last 10 home games in the Champions League, with both defeats coming against Manchester City. During that run the Ukrainians defeated Roma and Napoli, so it wouldn’t be harsh saying that Italian teams aren’t having the best of times when traveling to Ukraine in recent years.
Despite all that, Shakhtar also drew against Dinamo Zagreb twice, which shows that Luis Castro’s team are not so dominant at the moment and Atalanta already proved that they can at least play on par with them.
However, in order to achieve what not so long ago seemed impossible, Atalanta need to build on their performance against Dinamo last night and make yet another step forward. Gasperini’s men need to start finishing more of their chances, as they keep wasting too many of them and will eventually pay for that.
That was exactly what happened during the weekend against Juventus, and while the Bianconeri are on a completely different level compared to Shakhtar, the Ukrainians already proved they can also punish such mistakes.
Atalanta’s growth in Europe has been evident and the team is evolving game after game, but if Gasperini’s men want to beat the odds once again, they need to keep the same fearless approach that has turned them into one of the top sides in Serie A. At the same time however, La Dea need to display maturity that has often eluded them in European competitions and be more clinical in front of goal.
While qualifying for the Champions League was a remarkable achievement of its own, reaching the knockout stage would just be astonishing. It’d also be historic, as no team has ever qualified for the Round of 16 after losing their first three games.
Showing gradual improvement is good, but the victory against Dinamo Zagreb shows that Atalanta are still alive and kicking. If nothing else, as Gasperini said, they have proved their presence in the Champions League was not the waste of an Italian spot.