Rejuvenated Atalanta finally dare to dream


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As Atalanta’s bus came off the motorway at the exit for Bergamo late on Saturday night, the driver and his passengers were confronted by 300 fans waving flags and singing songs. He was told by the club’s president Antonio Percassi to park up for 10 minutes. Why not enjoy this moment with them?

Earlier that evening Atalanta had made history at the Renato dall’Ara. A solo effort from Giuseppe de Luca, the mosquito, and a screamer from Chelo Estigarribia had clinched the team its sixth straight win in Serie A, a new club record. It broke the one they’d established back in 1991, which also culminated with a victory against Bologna.

At that time, Atalanta had the so-called ‘child of the wind’, Claudio Caniggia, up front and the great Swede, Glenn Peter Strömberg, influencing things from midfield. Memorably the Orobici made the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup that season, eliminating Zvoni Boban and Davor Suker’s Dinamo Zagreb among others, before succumbing in the last eight to the eventual winners, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter.

So deep had they gone in that competition that Atalanta were in some peril in Serie A, but the filotto or streak of five straight victories which included going to San Siro and beating Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, “made us leap up the table,” Strömberg recalled in L’Eco di Bergamo last week, “and in the end we were safe by 10 points on fourth bottom.”

From desperation had come inspiration. Things have been slightly different this season. They’ve never been safe so quickly.

“This year Atalanta have been unworried even if there always comes a moment when you are only three or four points from the relegation zone,” explained Strömberg. “After losing 4-0 to Parma [on February 16] and then the draw in Udine it was fundamental to beat Chievo, a direct rival.

“From then onwards the run started: the team won in Rome against Lazio, then also at San Siro and now finds itself in a fantastic position in the table. I hope with all my heart it keeps going like this.”

And in all likelihood it will.

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Beaten only three times at home all season, which makes the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia the fourth-toughest place to go in Serie A, Atalanta host struggling Sassuolo on Sunday. Should the Bergamaschi win, they will equal the seven wins in a row they put together before the formation of Serie A in 1927-28 and later in Serie B in 1994-95 when Maurizio Ganz led the line for them. Atalanta will also be just a single point shy of the club record 50-point total they achieved in 2007 and with six games remaining too.

Currently up in seventh, Europe isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. With Napoli and Fiorentina contesting the Coppa Italia final, sixth will be enough to reach the third qualifying round of the Europa League. Parma, who will play their game in hand tomorrow at Roma, occupy that spot at the moment. As it stands, they’re a point in front of Atalanta, while Inter, in fifth, are only three points ahead of them following last night’s draw with Livorno. Overtake both of them between now and the end of the season and Atalanta will match their best ever finish in the top flight 66 years ago.

“It won’t happen, but if it happens…” is how they are approaching it. After all, it costs nothing to dream. And it’s not like they splashed much cash to get where they are now. Atalanta’s net spend was €1.6m in the summer.

Their recruitment, coordinated by sporting director Pierpaolo Marino, the man who signed Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi for Napoli, has been smart. One of his flops there, a certain German Denis, has been a terrific success at Atalanta. El Tanque has scored 42 in 99 games for them. He also provided us with one of the moments of the season when he ran behind the goal to celebrate with his son, a ball-boy.

It must also be said that the academy which once produced the likes of Gaetano Scirea, Antonio Cabrini, Roberto Donadoni and, more recently Giampaolo Pazzini, is thriving again. One of its graduates, Giacomo Bonaventura appears ready to make the step up to a big club while Daniele Baselli looks to have a bright future ahead of him as a deep-lying playmaker in competition with Luca Cigarini.

According to Percassi the generation their legendary head of youth development Mino Favini is bringing through ranks among the best they’ve had for a long time. The hope is that “7-8-10 of our lads” will be integrated into the first team. Playing with nothing to lose and everything to gain, it’s expected that those who aren’t out on loan in Serie B will be even given their debuts in the next six weeks. That there are the conditions to ease them in is of great credit to the work done by coach Stefano Colantuono. Experienced at every level, from the fourth division to the first, il Cola and Atalanta seem made for each other.

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Now in his second spell at the club, he got them promoted in his first in 2006, kept them up then left for Palermo. On his return in 2010, Colantuono guided the Dea back to the top flight again, ensured she survived and is now leading her to bigger and better things. The Queen of the Provinces has seldom looked better.

To find a more magical season you probably have to go back to `87-88 when second division Atalanta, Coppa Italia finalists the year before under Emiliano Mondonico, won Serie B and reached the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup only to be knocked out by the winners Mechelen who edged Ajax in the final.

The run has been great for Bergamo. This is a real football town. Milan might only be 45 minutes away in the car but no-one supports either of its clubs. Everyone is an Atalanta supporter.

And instead of waiting until the pre-season for their annual Festa della Dea, a huge summer festival which has seen new signings presented in hot-air balloons and tanks running over cars spray-painted in rival colours, Percassi, their former player-cum-president, believes “this team deserves a party at the end [of this campaign] for the incredible championship it’s having.

“For now though we should all be thinking about filling the stadium for our next four home games. Sportingly speaking I want it to be like a cauldron, and for the team to be spurred on by the Nord and only applauded.”

Percassi will get his wish. And maybe, just maybe, the fans chanting “Carry us into Europe” will get theirs too.

By James Horncastle – on Twitter @JamesHorncastle

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