Ahead of their back-to-back Champions League fixtures, we preview Manchester City’s next opponents Atalanta
Who are Atalanta?
Atalanta hail from the picturesque northern Italian city of Bergamo, located close to the Italian lakes about an hour from Milan. They are, in many ways, the archetypal provincial Italian club. What they lack in major silverware (they have just one domestic honour, the 1963 Coppa Italia, to their name) they make up for with a fiercely passionate local fan base. Over many years, they have forged a reputation for nurturing a conveyor belt of young talent, with players such as Roberto Donadoni and Filippo Inzaghi coming of age in the city.
La Dea have spent the majority of their existence in Serie A, predominantly living in the shadow of their more fashionable Milanese neighbours. However, all of that has changed in recent years under the guidance of coach Gian Piero Gasperini. Their 3th place finish last season secured Champions League football for the first time in their history.
How do they play?
Gasperini is an unlikely mastermind behind Atalanta’s emergence as a force in Italian football. He had two moderately successful spells coaching Genoa, intersected by a disastrous three-game tenure at Inter Milan in 2011. Operating with one of the smaller budgets in Serie A, Gasperini has been working miracles at Atalanta, bringing the best out of a motley crew of journeymen, enigmas and rising stars.
Over a three-year period Gasperini has achieved European qualification three times. Each summer he has been forced to sell one or more of his emerging talents to a Serie A rival, yet each time his side have been reborn. It is a measure of the esteem in which he is held in Bergamo that he was recently awarded honorary citizenship.
Atalanta typically line up in a 3-4-2-1 formation; their swashbuckling attacking style has won numerous admirers across Italy and beyond. They adopt a hard-pressing style when the opposition have the ball, forcing the turnovers, upon which their attackers thrive. An industrious deep-lying central midfield pairing is complemented by dynamic wing backs who get forward at every opportunity. Atalanta aren’t involved in many goalless draws; their backline can be error-prone, but this is primarily mitigated by their clinical forward play. In short, Atalanta are instinctively set up to outscore their opponents.
An excellent, detailed explanation of Atalanta’s tactical approach can be here.
Who should you watch out for?
Atalanta’s success is built on the potency of their attacking trident. Powerful Colombian striker Duván Zapata has sustained a rich vein of form for the nerazzurri, scoring 29 goals in 44 appearances since signing from Sampdoria in summer 2018. Zapata is an equally adept finisher with both head and foot, and his physicality and pace consistently causes problems for defenders in Serie A
Diminutive Argentinian Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez takes up a marauding attacking role just behind Zapata, and is the maestro behind Atalanta’s attacking verve. His low centre of gravity, dribbling ability and explosive bursts of pace make him a particular threat when surging from deep. Gomez captains the side, and his busy playing style sets the tempo for much of Atalanta’s forward play.
In deep contrast to Gomez’s diligent style, is the languid Slovenian Josip Iličić. The mercurial 31-year old, in particular, has flourished under the firm-but-fair treatment of Gasperini. Whilst his technical ability has never been in doubt, his attitude and inconsistency has prevented him from realising his potential in the past. The tall playmaker can be devastating on his day and is most dangerous with the ball at his feet cutting in from wide positions.
You should also keep an eye (or perhaps an ear) out for goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini. The former Manchester United and Aston Villa shot-stopper has a side-line in rap music, having released songs under the stage name Gollorius.
What are Atalanta’s expectations in Europe?
Having bolstered their squad this summer with the signings of Luis Muriel (Sevilla) and Ruslan Malinovskyi (Genk), Atalanta will be bitterly disappointed with their opening round defeats to Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb. Those results have effectively ended their hopes of progressing in this competition; however, they have a point to prove and Gasperini will be demanding high standards in Manchester.
Success for Atalanta would be a third-placed finish and entry to the Europa League knock-out phase. Their excellent form in Serie A this term should serve as an indicator of what they are capable of – and it should be noted that Atalanta have often been at their most ruthless following unexpected defeats.
Are there any injuries ahead of the game?
Duvan Zapata is unlikely to feature at the Etihad, having sustained an adductor injury whilst on international duty with Colombia. Whilst Atalanta will be hoping he can regain fitness for the return match in Milan, they have a capable replacement in the form of Zapata’s compatriot Luis Muriel.
Signed in the summer for just this kind of eventuality, Muriel has done the rounds in Italy and Spain. He is another player that has struggled for consistency in his career to date, but Muriel is a rounded forward capable of both scoring and creating goals. His major threat comes on the counter-attack (see this goal scored whilst on loan at Fiorentina last year), which could be pertinent to his side in Manchester.
Aside from this, Gasperini has a full squad to choose from.
What is their support like?
Atalanta are known for creating one of the most intense atmospheres in Italian football. When they play, the whole city unites behind the team, replete with banners, pyro and the kind of chanting that rocks the foundations of the stadium. The slightly unhinged dedication of their ultras is perhaps best illustrated by an incident in 2013 where they acquired a military tank and proceeded to drive it over cars painted in the colours of their rivals.
They are expected to travel in numbers as they did when they faced Everton in the Europa League two years ago and will seek to recreate the visual and aural spectacular usually seen at the Stadi Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. In amongst the Atalanta fans you might spot some representatives from Eintracht Frankfurt, a club with which the ultras enjoy a twinning relationship (or “gemellaggio”).
How will they line up?
Another key to Atalanta’s success has been their prudent and well-judged recruitment strategy. They have consistently been able to take players from relative obscurity and turn them into first team regulars. You would be forgiven for not previously having heard of several of their mainstays, such as José Luis Palomino (from Ludogorets), Hans Hateboer (Groningen), Remo Freuler (Lucern) and Robin Gosens (Heracles).
Prediction for the game
City are clear favourites for the victory, but they will under-estimate the Italians at their peril. A professional performance from the home side should see them ease to victory by a comfortable margin. Atalanta are unlikely to compromise on their usual attacking mentality, so expect goals.
Thanks for reading! The return fixture will be hosted at the San Siro in Milan, due to the dilapidated state of some parts of the Stadi Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. Unfortunately travelling City fans therefore will miss out on one of Italian football’s most intense atmospheres – but you can read about it here.