Champions League dream becoming reality for Atalanta

Atalanta head coach Gian Piero Gasperini celebrates his team's victory at the end of the Serie A soccer match between Lazio and Atalanta at the Olympic stadium in Rome, Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Riccardo Antimiani/ANSA via AP)
Atalanta's Berat Djimsiti, center, celebrates after Lazio's Wallace scored an own goal during the Serie A soccer match between Lazio and Atalanta at the Olympic stadium in Rome, Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Riccardo Antimiani/ANSA via AP)
Juventus's Giorgio Chiellini, back, and Torino's Alejandro Berenguer during the Italian Serie A soccer match between Juventus FC and Torino FC at the Allianz Stadium in Turin, Italy, Friday, May 3, 2019. (Alessandro Di Marco/ansa via AP)
Atalanta's players celebrate victory at the end of the Serie A soccer match between Lazio and Atalanta at the Olympic stadium in Rome, Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Riccardo Antimiani/ANSA via AP)
Juventus's Cristiano Ronaldo jubilates after scoring a goal during the Italian Serie A soccer match Juventus FC vs Torino FC at the Allianz Stadium in Turin, Italy, Friday, May 3, 2019. (Alessandro Di Marco/ansa via AP)
Atalanta's Timothy Castagne celebrates with his teammates after scoring his team's second goal during the Serie A soccer match between Lazio and Atalanta at the Olympic stadium in Rome, Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Riccardo Antimiani/ANSA via AP)
Juventus's Cristiano Ronaldo scores the goal during the Italian Serie A soccer match between Juventus FC and Torino FC at the Allianz Stadium in Turin, Italy, Friday, May 3, 2019. (Alessandro Di Marco/ansa via AP)

MILAN — The likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar could soon be descending on the small Italian city of Bergamo.

Atalanta needs seven points from its final three Serie A matches to guarantee qualification for the Champions League for the first time in its history.

"We believed we could get into the Champions League, now we believe even more," Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini said after Sunday's 3-1 win at Lazio.

"We started out aiming to qualify for the Europa League, but after the victory at Napoli we began to really believe in the Champions League."

Atalanta has qualified for the second-tier Europa League the past two seasons, although this campaign ended in the playoff round with a penalty shootout loss to Copenhagen.

The club's only other appearances in European competitions came in the UEFA Cup (1989-90 and 1990-91) and the Cup Winner's Cup (1963-64 and 1987-88).

The victory over Lazio solidified Atlanta's hold on fourth place — the last Champions League spot — and moved it within one point of third-place Inter Milan.

The team was welcomed back to Bergamo from Rome by about 4,000 fans at the club's headquarters. Banners and flags were displayed and flares were set off as the fans chanted and sang in a joyous and raucous celebration.

Atalanta is three points above fifth-place Roma and both play two of the same teams in their final three matches — Juventus and Sassuolo.

Atalanta's other match is against Genoa, which held Roma to a 1-1 draw on Sunday, while Roma also plays Parma.

The fight for the final Champions League spot could come down to goal difference with Atalanta and Roma even head-to-head, following a pair of 3-3 draws.

Atalanta has a much superior difference of 28, compared to Roma's 15, thanks in part to scoring a league-leading 71 goals — two more than Italian champions Juventus.

Duvan Zapata has 22 of those goals, putting him three behind Sampdoria forward Fabio Quagliarella in the race for the top scorer award, and within two of Atalanta's season record set by Filippo Inzaghi in 1996-97.

"The Champions League is not just a dream anymore," Zapata said after Sunday's win. "It's credit to us if we manage to make it reality.

"Today was a step forward, we believe we can do it, we're doing well. Each match is like a final, as we saw today."

JORDAN-ESQUE

Cristiano Ronaldo's aerial ability has led to comparisons with basketball great Michael Jordan.

Ronaldo scored his 100th headed goal of his career on Saturday to salvage a 1-1 derby draw against Torino.

With Juventus trailing 1-0 and six minutes left to play, Ronaldo leapt high in the air and seemed to hang for a long time before meeting Leonardo Spinazzola's cross with a towering header.

An editorial in Sunday's edition of Italian national newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport compared Ronaldo to Jordan.

But for teammate Giorgio Chiellini, Ronaldo is more comparable to other sporting stars — especially for his rivalry with Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo's goal at the weekend was his 601st in club football, moving him again one in front of Messi.

"We are lucky to live in the same era as these two superstars and to play with Cristiano," Chiellini said. "We can compare them to (Roger) Federer and (Rafael) Nadal. One day Cristiano could be the best in the world and the next Messi, but the truth is that they are two aliens who play a different sport to us."

It was a 21st league goal of the season for Ronaldo, who has been playing and scoring regularly, even while being accused of raping a woman in 2009 in the United States — something the Portugal star denies.

___

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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