Atalanta, the Ajax of Italy, threatening Serie A's hierarchy

Atalanta's Marten De Roon, left, celebrates with his teammates after scoring from the penalty spot his side's opening goal during the Serie A soccer match between Atalanta and Udinese at the Atleti Azzurri d'Italia stadium in Bergamo, Italy, Monday, April 29, 2019. (Paolo Magni /ANSA via AP)
Napoli'ss Fabian Ruiz, left, and Atalanta's Mario Pasalic vie for the ball during the Italian Serie A soccer match between Napoli and Atalanta at the San Paolo stadium in Naples, Italy, Monday, April 22, 2019. (Cesare Abbate/ANSA via AP)
Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini celebrates during the Serie A soccer match between Atalanta and Udinese at the Atleti Azzurri d'Italia stadium in Bergamo, Italy, Monday, April 29, 2019. (Paolo Magni /ANSA via AP)

ROME — First came a draw then came domination over Juventus.

An away win at another league power followed.

Only this wasn't Ajax.

It was Atalanta, a provincial club outside Milan that is threatening to throw Serie A's usual hierarchy out of whack.

Nicknamed "La Dea" — the goddess — Atalanta has certainly been playing divinely of late.

After eliminating Juventus 3-0 in the quarterfinals, Atalanta swept aside Fiorentina to reach the Italian Cup final against Lazio this month. In between those results, Atalanta produced a stunning 2-1 comeback win at Napoli — making it only the second Italian club besides Juventus to win at the San Paolo stadium this season.

A nine-match unbeaten run in Serie A has vaulted Atalanta into fourth place, which carries direct entry to the Champions League group stage.

Atalanta is three points behind third-placed Inter Milan and has four clubs — Roma, Torino, AC Milan and Lazio — trailing it within four points with four rounds remaining.

"We control our own destiny," coach Gian Piero Gasperini says. "Our morale level is through the roof."

The schedule, however, is a challenge. Atalanta visits Lazio on Sunday in a preview of the Cup final and travels to play Juventus in the penultimate round. The Cup final on May 15 will also be at the Stadio Olimpico, Lazio's home ground.

"I think everyone needs to win at least three matches. But as far as we're concerned, if we run the table we won't have to worry about the calculations," Gasperini says. "We could get everything or nothing. We just can't stop fighting."

With a free-flowing style of play similar to Ajax's, Atalanta has gained a reputation for its fighting spirit and late scores. Its 68 goals match Juventus for the most in Serie A, and the forward trio of Duvan Zapata, captain Alejandro "Papu" Gomez, and Josip Ilicic has been creating headaches for opposing defenses.

Zapata's 21 goals put him in a tie with Krzysztof Piatek (Milan) for second on the league chart behind only Fabio Quagliarella (Sampdoria), who has 23, and ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus), who has 20.

Ronaldo had to score a late equalizer in December to rescue a 2-2 draw at Atalanta. A month later, Zapata's brace helped Atalanta to a 3-0 Cup win over Juventus — ending Juve's four-year stranglehold on the trophy.

"We've been playing at a high level for many months but there's no way physical or mental fatigue can stop us now," Gasperini says. "We're full of confidence, otherwise we wouldn't produce these comebacks. We always believe we can change the outcome of the match."

And if the results weren't enough to invigorate Atalanta's fans, the club this week revealed details of a plan to remodel its entire stadium in time for the 2021-22 seasons. Construction on the three-phase project will start immediately, meaning Atalanta will play its final two home matches against Genoa and Sassuolo in Reggio Emilia at Mapei Stadium, Sassuolo's ground.

So, fans are mobilizing to travel en masse for the team's remaining matches.

"We want to bring all of Bergamo to Rome for the Cup final," Gomez said.

While it has won Serie B six times, Atalanta's only major trophy was the 1963 Italian Cup.

Having helped to launch the careers of players such as Roberto Donadoni, Christian Vieri, and Filippo Inzaghi, Atalanta has long been known as a nursery for players who achieved greatness elsewhere.

Mattia Caldara (Milan), Andrea Conti (Milan), Roberto Gagliardini (Inter), and Franck Kessie (Milan) — the core of the Atalanta squad that finished fourth in 2017, have all moved down the road to the bigger Milan clubs. Back then, though, fourth place meant only a Europa League berth.

If Atalanta can reach the Champions League, it might be able to hold on to some of its young talents.

Gasperini, who is reportedly being considered as a future coach of Milan, could also choose to stay.

When recently asked about his future, Gasperini replied, "It's not the time to talk about that."


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