As Atalanta and Olympique Lyonnais prepared to do battle for the first time in this season’s Europa League on September 28, the French side’s star player and captain, Nabil Fekir, caused a stir by confessing that he did not know who Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez was.
When the Bergamaschi welcome Ligue 1’s second placed side to their adopted home in Reggio Emilia on Thursday evening, they will need their No.10 to put his recent slump behind him and deliver the type of performance that helped the club secure European football.
After five games each, the two sides have already booked their place in the knockout rounds with 11 points apiece and the game at the Mapei Stadium will be a straight shoot-out for first place in the group.
In 2016/17, Gomez contributed 16 goals and a further 10 assists, helping Atalanta to achieve a record-breaking 72 points, which clinched them a shock fourth place finish and automatic qualification for the Europa League group stage. If they are to upset the Europa League odds as they did in Serie A last term, he will need to hit similar numbers again.
In Italy, Papu’s talents have long been known, going back to his three years at Catania from 2010 on, but further afield his qualities, evidently, had gone unnoticed.
“Now they know who I am,” said a grinning Gomez to Sky Sport Italia after he scored an important free-kick to seal an impressive 1-1 draw at the Groupama Stadium back in September, and it is not just Lyon who have become aware of him in recent months. He is now a regular in the Argentina selection and was trusted with a starting position in their crucial World Cup qualifier against Peru at La Bombonera in October. He has made people sit up and take note.
Since that night in France, however, his form for La Dea has slowed down and the team have suffered as a result.
While on the surface his statistics remain okay – three Serie A goals and four assists in 11 starts – he has not found the net since converting that free-kick and Atalanta have won just five of their 12 games in all competitions. In Europe, meanwhile, he has always been able to raise his game, hitting two goals and as many assists in his four games.
When Papu plays well, Atalanta do too, so him rediscovering his magic touch is beyond important for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side.
Statistics don’t always tell the whole story and in truth, Gomez has put enough chances on a plate for his teammates in recent weeks that could have his tally equal to last season’s total already if not for their misfiring, but, it does seem that he is lacking in confidence.
It is no coincidence that he has somewhat struggled without Leonardo Spinazzola accompanying him on the left flank and the two combine to great effect when they are selected together. The wing-back upset Gasperini and many of those who occupy the Curva Pisani by attempting to force a premature return to parent club Juventus and has not always been chosen as his reintegration to the squad continues.
Both are expected to start on Thursday and if they are to upset Lyon and progress to the knockout rounds as group winners, they will need Papu to remind Fekir once more exactly who he is and what he is capable of doing.