Atalanta missed a golden opportunity to claim a famous win in the Champions League and increase their pedigree in the competition as they lost 3-2 at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.
La Dea came into the match against Manchester United knowing that the Premier League side were in a rotten patch of form and that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under serious pressure to turn things around.
They started the game like a team who had sensed an opportunity. Atalanta were lively and positive, whilst still being very open at the back. The opening exchanges were chaotic from both teams, but Gian Piero Gasperini‘s side were the ones who capitalised.
Mario Pasalic poked home Davide Zappacosta’s cross in a move that from a United perspective, was far too easy. Before the half hour mark, Merih Demiral had made it 2-0 by heading in a corner. Crucially, as he went running away in celebration he held his hamstring.
He played on and continued to have his best game since joining Atalanta. United had caused the Nerazzurri issues but it was only until two chances for Fred and Marcus Rashford right at the end of the half that it became clear United were serious about turning the game around.
As the teams emerged for the second half, Demiral was missing. Matteo Lovato was on in his place which made an already makeshift back three even more unrecognisable. The tide had turned completely and Atalanta did not know how to handle it.
Rashford slotted past Juan Musso early in the half to galvanise the Old Trafford crowd and La Dea briefly seemed to lose their heads. The yellow cards began to rack up, as did the shots on target for United.
The equaliser came through an unusual source as Harry Maguire was able to lash the ball into the bottom corner after Bruno Fernandes recycled a corner, and then a familiar foe consigned Atalanta to an away defeat.
After one failed attempt to get the ball in the box, Luke Shaw swung in a perfect cross with 10 minutes to go which was met by one of Cristiano Ronaldo’s trademark headers. Old Trafford erupted, and Atalanta hearts sank.
Atalanta’s missed opportunity at Manchester United
Getting a win at Old Trafford against Manchester United, regardless of the form the English side are in, would have been yet another incredible achievement under Gian Piero Gasperini that the fans would never have expected to see.
It would have been placed nicely next to the memories of beating Liverpool at Anfield in the same tournament last season.
Atalanta know how it feels to be on the brink of something special and then see it slip out of your grasp. That is what can happen when you are European football’s serial overachievers.
The context to these achievements and near-achievements is that Atalanta’s wage bill is €35 million, whilst United’s is an astonishing €268 million. As was pointed out by Carlo Garganese on Twitter, La Dea were also without five key players, six if you include Demiral’s departure at half time.
Great game, great comeback from Man Utd. Deserved win. Created lots
Atalanta should be proud. €35m salary to €268m, let’s put things in perspective
Missing 5 first team players and then lost a 6th at half time which killed them
Still in a good position in group #MUNATA
— Carlo Garganese (@carlogarganese) October 20, 2021
This isn’t the first time, though, that Atalanta have failed to follow through on a wonderful opportunity to do something even more special than they already have done just by consistently appearing in the competition.
Back in 2020, Atalanta were just moments away from securing a place in the semi-finals of the Champions League in their debut season. They were 1-0 up against the Qatar state-backed Paris Saint-Germain.
Somehow though, it went wrong. Marquinhos equalised in the 90th minute, and then in the 93rd, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting slid in a winner for the French club and the fans back in Bergamo were left wondering what might have been.
A less dramatic but ultimately important example is when Atalanta were knocked out of the tournament by Real Madrid last season. The Spanish side came into the first leg of the round of 16 tie depleted. They had no choice but to play a backline of Lucas Vazquez, Nacho Fernandez, Sergio Ramos, and Ferland Mendy.
Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard were also unavailable. It was a great chance for Atalanta to get a win over Europe’s most successful club and take it to Madrid with them for the second leg. Instead, Remo Freuler was dismissed after 17 minutes and Gasperini’s side couldn’t impose themselves upon a weak Real side.
Mendy then scored a low finish in the 86th minute to give Real Madrid a vital away goal, and by the time the second leg came around, many first-teamers had returned to fitness. The tie ended 4-1 to Real Madrid on aggregate.
The fact that Atalanta are competing on this stage considering the size of the club is a remarkable achievement that must never be overlooked. That being said, this is their third season in UEFA’s elite competition, and it may be about time they learned how to capitalise on positions of strength and see out leads against the traditional elite teams.