On September 18, 2019, Atalanta’s fairytale journey was met with a harsh reality check. Gian Piero Gasperini led his side over to Croatia for the club’s first Champions League game in their 112-year history only to be brought crashing down to earth with a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb.
After losing their second and third games in the competition against Shakhtar Donetsk and Manchester City respectively, La Dea somehow managed to fight back in their final three games and progress to the knockout rounds.
What a difference a year can make. On Wednesday night Gasperini’s side again travelled to open their Champions League campaign, and this time they made the trip to Denmark off the back of a humbling 4-1 loss away to Napoli in Serie A, but they showed that they have learned the lessons that cost them early on last season and secured an emphatic 4-0 win over Midtjylland.
In a group including Liverpool and Ajax, it was vital that the Italians got off to a winning start, but it was probably just as important that how much the game mattered didn’t weigh too heavily on their minds, as it had seemed to in Zagreb a year ago. The weather was miserable, the pitch was slippery and the Danes started on the front foot with an aggressiveness that isn’t often seen in Serie A. But it didn’t faze them.
Whereas a year ago they froze and grew frustrated with things not going their way, this time around that initial ten-minute storm was weathered and then Papu Gomez and co. were able to do their thing. The captain was as instrumental as ever for La Dea. As usual, he was dropping deep to find possession and to win it back, too. When he had it he was mischievous and probing, always looking for the slightest of gaps to worm his way through.
Gomez was rewarded after Atalanta had taken the lead through Duvan Zapata. The Colombian turned provider for the second to tee up his captain, allowing the No.10 to fire in a vicious strike off the crossbar. The following ten minutes of the first half allowed them to put on a show, and they should have grabbed more than the one goal that fell Luis Muriel’s way.
The Argentinian’s importance to his side isn’t something that needs reiterating, as anybody who has seen them play over the last few seasons will know how pivotal he is, but they do have players whose importance is too often overlooked.
Remo Freuler and Berat Djimsiti are two of those. They were back in the starting XI after missing out in Naples at the weekend, and it’s not a coincidence that the side shipped four goals without them in it. The Albanian was introduced at half time at the Stadio San Paolo and with him on the pitch Atalanta scored one to Napoli’s none.
Both Frueler and Djimsiti were excellent in Denmark and they managed the conditions perfectly, as did Zapata and Robin Gosens as well.
The goals keep coming
Atalanta have now scored 18 goals in just five matches this season, hitting form in front of goal that not even they have shown before. In 2019/20 it took them nine matches to score as many, but they’ve been almost unstoppable in 2020/21, that trip to Naples aside.
In last season’s Champions League they had just three goals after their first four games, and it wasn’t until Luis Muriel’s penalty against Zagreb at home that they had their fourth. As well as that, they’ve won five of their last six games in Europe, which is as many wins as they had managed in their previous 15 continental fixtures.
They have, though, scored in 17 of their last 18 European ties – excluding qualification rounds.
The Colombian connection
Zapata and Muriel both getting on the scoresheet marked a memorable night for Colombians playing in Europe. Wednesday was the first time that two Colombian players have scored in the same Champions League match.
Gomez’s strike sandwiched between them only served to highlight how important Atalanta’s South Americans have been to their recent rise, not to mention Rafael Toloi’s contributions at the back as well.