As they do every so often, Atalanta fell to a thumping at the hands of Liverpool on Tuesday, crumbling to a 5-0 defeat in their Champions League group game in Bergamo.
The temptation to write the game off as ‘just another one of those results’ for Atalanta is strong, but it’s probably about time that we expect more from the Bergamaschi, who have provided a sizeable portion of the entertainment served up by all of Serie A’s clubs over the last few seasons.
Warning signs have been there already this season, notably in Naples when Atalanta failed to show up in the first half of a 4-1 defeat, conceding each of the four goals in the opening 45 minutes. Again, at home to Sampdoria, they didn’t turn it on and lost 3-1.
But Tuesday night was their worst performance of the season and it came against, without a doubt, the best team they have faced and likely will face in 2020/21. Liverpool were what Atalanta can be but weren’t. They were clinical, unforgiving, sharp, and relentless.
It was never going to be an easy night’s work for the Nerazzurri, made all the more challenging by Pierluigi Gollini not yet being fully fit and having both Marten de Roon and Robin Goses out injured.
Jose Luis Palomino’s inclusion in the XI was never going to end well for the hosts, particularly not with him playing behind Mario Pasalic in midfield rather than having De Roon accompany Remo Freuler to create their usual protective wall in front of the defence.
In possession, they never clicked into gear. They weren’t allowed to. Papu Gomez was managed very well by Liverpool’s midfield, the wing-backs were muted and clever tactical fouls broke down every attempt at a counterattack that fell their way.
But at the back, they collapsed. Palomino was given a runaround by Diogo Jota and Johan Mohica had his own struggles on the left, as well as Marco Sportiello not exactly covering himself in glory at the back.
Selection errors, individual slips, and coming up against a brilliant opponent cost La Dea. They’re not likely to meet a team as good as Liverpool again after the return fixture later this month, but they cannot afford to have as many of these off days as they have had since reaching the Champions League.
Gian Piero Gasperini acknowledged as much after the game, which will have offered some comfort to Atalanta supporters, as well as hinting that things might change over the next few weeks.
“We have to reflect,” Gasperini told Sky Sport Italia afterward. “It went very badly for us in Manchester [against Manchester City in last season’s group stage] too.
“Then, we knew that by changing on some things, we would improve. Tonight, there really was a big gap and we have to reflect on the tactical and structural approach for matches like these.”
It’s not likely that Atalanta are going to change too dramatically, nor should they, but some tweaks are needed in order to battle at the very top, both in Serie A and on the continent.
What’s clear though is that they’re no longer at a stage where these results can be let pass without serious examination, and that’s perhaps the biggest compliment of Gasperini’s work that can be paid to him. Five games into his tenure in 2016, losing a Champions League group game against Premier League champions Liverpool isn’t something they thought they’d be unhappy about in 2020.
Now, though, Atalanta are serious contenders in Italy. The Scudetto isn’t an unrealistic goal. They reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season and had one foot in the semi-finals in the 90th minute against Paris Saint-Germain only to fall to two stoppage-time goals.
Calamitous nights like Tuesday shouldn’t be tolerated anymore, and, after Gasperini’s post-match comments, it will be a surprise to see too many more of them this season.