Many football clubs are seen as the epitome of the city in which they are based. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich all undoubtedly embody the spirit of their respective hometowns, while sides like Sunderland, West Ham and Everton all represent the values that their local communities hold dearest.
Yet as the world begins to take its tentative first steps following the Coronavirus-enforced lock-down, perhaps nowhere is this more true than in Bergamo. Situated roughly 50km north east of Milan, this was undoubtedly the epicentre of the outbreak in Italy and perhaps Europe as a whole, reporting over 13,600 cases and over 3,000 deaths according to official data.
The local mayor Giorgio Gori recently told a press conference that – according to sample-based research – up to 45% of residents in the area had come into contact with the virus and around 35% of those reported symptoms.
However, there has always been a strong bond between Bergamo and its football team, so much so that any child born in the local hospital receives an Atalanta kit from the club as a gift. So now, as the town looks to rebuild, it is no surprise that the residents find themselves looking towards the Gewiss Stadium for inspiration.
“While it’s clear that the resumption of football– behind closed doors and with no fans – comes with peculiar conditions, it is clearly a positive thing,” mayor Gori continued. “There is a desire to return to ‘normal’, even if that is difficult as the virus is still there. Football can help restore some joy after months of terrible darkness.”
As they have so many times, Atalanta certainly seem to have risen to that challenge. They were back in action this past weekend and looked exactly the same as they had before the enforced stoppage. They smashed Sassuolo by 4-1, the energetic pressing, swift and incisive counter attacking and diligent defending that have become their hallmarks all on show as they cantered to yet another victory that consolidated their grip on fourth place in the Serie A table.
Then, just three days later, they took on a Lazio side who have been equally impressive, going into this encounter just four points behind league leaders Juventus who had played one game more. Lazio overwhelmed Atalanta in the opening moments of the game, jumping out to a two-goal lead that seemed to show that their small squad would be unable to cope with the demands of the compressed schedule.
But at half-time, something galvanised the players. There were no subtle tactical changes, no tinkering with personnel, in fact their Coach was not even in the dressing room, Gasperini serving a suspension following his red card at the weekend. Instead, Atalanta simply took to the field after the break and did what they always do, only better.
They committed fully to harassing their opponents in possession, quickly winning back the ball before streaming forward in unstoppable waves. Robin Gosens pulled one back, Ruslan Malinovskiy slammed home an unstoppable second and defender José Palomino nodded home the winner from a corner.
It ended 3-2, Gasperini as delighted in the empty stands as his players were down on the pitch after a game that embodied not only their remarkable resilience, but also their ability to score all manner of goals from any area of the field. They followed that up by also beating Udinese 3-2, which means they have hit the back of the net a staggering 31 times in their last eight matches while taking their overall tally in Serie A to 80 goals.
That’s three more than the club record they set one year ago… all with 10 rounds still to play.
It is all so very typical of this version of Atalanta, a side written off as underdogs in the shadow of their giant neighbours Inter and AC Milan, yet who finished above both last season to earn the club’s first ever berth in the Champions League. When the group stage began this term, they were once again dismissed, particularly after they lost each of their first three games.
Yet Gian Piero Gasperini has sewn a deep layer of resiliency within his squad and they fought back, earning a draw against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City before beating Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk to advance to the knockout stages.
There they made short work of a heavily favoured Valencia, a side with far more European experience and pedigree than the Italian minnows. A 4-1 win at home was followed by a remarkable 4-3 triumph at the Mestalla as Atalanta once again shone in the face of severe adversity.