Atalanta’s ability to grind out a win in a lacklustre affair with Sampdoria on Wednesday evening provided proof, if there wasn’t enough already, that they could be Juventus’ biggest challengers as the Scudetto race draws to its conclusion.
The Blucerchiati, who are still firmly embroiled in the relegation battle, provided a surprisingly stiff test for Gian Piero Gasperini’s team and they even looked to be in control of the contest on several occasions.
Nicola Murru, Manolo Gabbiadini and Karol Linetty all had chances to give the visitors the lead in the opening 45 minutes as La Dea struggled to provide their usual attacking threat.
However, the ability to take all three points from a contest despite not performing to their usual high standards has become synonymous with the world’s most successful clubs, and over recent weeks La Dea have shown they have that trait in their locker.
Despite Claudio Ranieri’s men showing plenty of ambition throughout the first hour of the contest they appeared happy to shut up shop and escape Bergamo with a point in the final quarter of the game.
It was in that final quarter that Atalanta finally made the breakthrough needed to ensure they made it nine wins from nine games since the enforced break, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are the only other teams in Europe’s top five leagues to achieve the same perfect record, and set up a mouthwatering contest with Juve on Saturday evening.
THE GRIT OF CHAMPIONS
Atalanta have become widely regarded as Italy’s most exciting attacking team, with their free flowing, fast paced style of football bagging them 85 goals in 31 league games, which is the highest total in Serie A and 20 more than table toppers Juventus.
However, La Dea’s ability to grind out a win is often overlooked, but it has been firmly on show in their last three games when their usual attacking flair has eluded them slightly.
Wednesday evening’s victory over Sampdoria was much like La Dea’s wins against Napoli and Cagliari, as they were forced to persevere and take what they could get against teams happy to walk away with a draw.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Highlight reel goals seem to come with great regularity when watching the boys from Bergamo, but it has been the more traditional, and less aesthetically pleasing, route that has helped them break the deadlock in recent weeks.
Both Toloi’s goal on Wednesday evening, and Mario Pasalic’s opener against Napoli, came directly from balls into the box in games that have offered little in the way of clear cut opportunities.
However, even in the face of Sampdoria’s resolute defence, Muriel’s wonderful long range strike showed that Atalanta are never far away from conjuring up a moment of magic.
SUPER SUB MURIEL
With his team struggling to find their feet in attack, Muriel’s introduction, as it has on several occasions throughout the season, proved to be a turning point in the contest for Atalanta.
It was his corner that found Toloi’s head to for the opener and he left Emil Audero rooted to the spot when his thunderbolt hit the bottom corner to double La Dea’s lead in the closing stages.
That strike made him only the second player in Europe’s top five leagues to have reached double-digits for goals as a substitute in the 21st century, Paco Alcacer the only other player to match the feat in 2018/19 with Borussia Dortmund.
JUVE’S BIGGEST THREAT?
Victory saw Atalanta climb to third in the Serie A table and brought them to within nine points of leaders Juventus with only seven games left to play.
The gap may seem too much for La Dea, but with the two teams facing each other on Saturday evening, and Lazio faltering in second place, the door is wide open for Gasperini’s team to make a late run for the Scudetto.
La Vecchia Signora, arguably, have the easier run in with Atalanta having games against fourth placed Inter, as well European hopefuls, AC Milan, Hellas Verona, Bologna and Parma still to come in the final weeks of the season. But a win in Turin for La Dea will help turn up the heat on Maurizio Sarri’s team in the race to the finish.