We are running out of adjectives to describe Atalanta’s sensational European campaign: Gian Piero Gasperini’s Nerazzurri had started their run in Europa League Group E with a clear 3-0 home win against Everton. Last night, they secured their presence in the Round of 32 after humiliating again the Toffees with a fabulous pokerissimo – five goals scored at Wayne Rooney’s home.
A dreamy night for Italian colors was completed by Milan’s exploit, as Vincenzo Montella and his squad also gained their ticket for the next stage of the second European competition thanks to a 5-1 win against Austria Wien. Lazio had already qualified for the Round of 32 two weeks ago, so yesterday they could settle for a 1-1 tie with Vitesse. That makes three out of three for our Italian clubs, which will all continue their Europa League journey in February – a positive boost of confidence for a football movement still scorned at their shocking elimination from Russia 2018.
More good news for the future of calcio came from the matches played at Goodison Park and San Siro stadiums, where Atalanta’s Bryan Cristante and Milan’s Patrick Cutrone both scored a brace and sent a clear message to the future coach of the Nazionale. It might be still too early for the Rossoneri 19-year-old talent, who in any case has already collected multiple caps in all youth squads, from Under 15 to Under 21. The Atalanta midfielder, on the other hand, already got his chance to debut with the Azzurri, in an unfortunate 1-1 draw with Macedonia.
The Europa League Thursday exploit once again overshadowed the performance of the Italian clubs busy with their Champions League duties. If Napoli uplifted their chances of making it past Group F after beating Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0, Roma made their life harder as they left the brand-new Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid with two goals received at the hands of Atlètico. In a much-awaited rematch of last season’s Quarter Finals battle, Juventus and a Barcelona filled with second lines settled for a goalless draw which qualifies the Blaugrana, but leaves good chances to the Bianconeri too.
With our top clubs struggling to stay afloat in the top continental tournament, Atalanta stole the stage by earning a qualification on which few people would have bet in pre-season. A group including Olympique Lyon and Everton theoretically left few chances to La Dea. Yet, not only Gasperini’s band beat twice the disappointing Brits, they also manage to halt Lyon on 1-1 at their home. In two-week time, Atalanta will face the French club again to decide which team grabs the first spot in the group.
The match against Everton at Goodison Park will easily go down to the Bergamo club’s history. The Toffees were doubtless the most resounding flop in this Europa League Group Stage, but this doesn’t make the doubles by Andreas Cornelius and Bryan Cristante, as well as Robin Gosens’ goal, any less meaningful.
Conquering a British stadium and its fiery atmosphere is never an easy task, doing so by scoring five goals is close to extraordinary. 3000 supporters followed La Dea past the English Channel: For some of them, memory might have gone back to the Nerazzurri’s fantastic run up to the Semi Finals of 1987-88 Cup Winners’ Cup. Dreaming doesn’t cost anything…
Coach Gian Piero Gasperini had sweet words for hero of the night Bryan Cristante, a player that at 22 seemed to have already lost his edge, after an unfruitful experience with Benfica. “He is an extraordinary player, who’s evolving very well. He must find the ambition to reach the top players,” Gasperini said about his regenerated playmaker.
In Group D, Vincenzo Montella came back to taste victory, and he did so in a European context – which is traditionally favorable to the Rossoneri, but that recently had also sparked disappointment among the fan base after two nil-nil draws with AEK Athens. This convincing 5-1 win put things back in order for Montella, with Milan securing the 1st place in the pool one round in advance. San Siro stage was stolen by André Silva and Patrick Cutrone, who both scored twice after Ricardo Rodriguez had equalised Austria’s unexpected lead. Both strikers have found very little space in Serie A so far – the European stage could generate new opportunities.
Bad news for Montella came once again from Leonardo Bonucci, as the Rossoneri new captain distinguished himself for the umpteenth mistake of his disgraceful season: In an attempt to clear Christoph Monschein’s shot, he ended up pushing the ball into his own net…
A meaningless match at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome – meaningless for already-qualified Lazio, at least – saw the Biancocelesti tying 1-1 after conceding the first goal to Dutch side Vitesse. Luis Alberto rebalanced the game, and accompanied Simone Inzaghi’s squad to the Round of 32 hands in hands with Nice, which benefited of Mario Balotelli’s 4th seasonal Europa League goal to beat Zulte Waregem 3-1 and gain access to the next stage as well.
Lazio, Milan, and Atalanta’s achievements cast some positive light on a week that had been grudging of positive outcomes for our clubs until that point – despite Napoli’s initial win against Shakthar Donetsk on Tuesday. The squad of Maurizio Sarri had collected one win and three losses in their earlier Champions League matches, suggesting that the team’s focus was all on the race for Scudetto.
A fair and understandable choice, given the current situation with Napoli comfortably leading Serie A, however the Partenopei showed that they are far from wanting to call their European season to an end. Lorenzo Insigne had already tried a goal alla Del Piero last Saturday against Milan, only narrowly missing it: On Tuesday, he managed to do that against the Ukrainian side, before Piotr Zielinksi and Dries Mertens rounded up the score. In two-week time, Napoli will have to win in Rotterdam against Feyenoord, and hope that Manchester City will do the same in Donetsk, to continue their run in the top continental competition.
Wednesday could have been the day in which Juventus and Roma booked their ticket to the knockout stage one round in advance. On the contrary, they will both have to suffer together with Napoli until the last match.
The Bianconeri received Barcelona at Allianz Stadium in Turin, with the only option to win if they wanted to celebrate an early qualification. In the 1st leg match played at Camp Nou in September, Lionel Messi had condemned Massimiliano Allegri’s band to a 0-3 defeat almost by himself. But this time Messi was on the bench, leaving space to former Milan’s winger Gerard Deulofeu in coach Ernesto Valverde’s trident.
The outcome of Valverde and Allegri’s choices was an unexpectedly boring match, with Ivan Rakitic hitting the post from a free kick, and Paulo Dybala calling the Blaugrana’s goalie Marc André Ter Stegen to a great save during extra time as the only emotions. The Allianz Stadium bestowed a standing ovation upon Andres Iniesta when he was substituted – as this might have been his last chance to play in Turin – and that was the best memory to keep from the night.
Barcelona maintained their first spot in Group D, whereas Juventus will need to gain their pass to the next round in Athens against Olympiacos, two weeks from now.
Eusebio Di Francesco’s Roma could have made our Champions League week sweeter: All they had to do was not to come with empty hands from their trip to the white-and-red side of Madrid. But Diego Simeone’s so-far-disappointing Atlético decided to wake up for the night, and surprised a Giallorossi side maybe too relaxed after their triumphant win in the Derby of Rome. A wonderful scissor kick by Antoine Griezmann, who then served an assist for his fellow countryman Kevin Gameiro, condemned Roma to 0-2 loss.
It will now take a win in the last home game against Qarabag, for Roma to make it past Group C – a task well within the Giallorossi’s reach. Qualification chances for all the three Italian Champions League clubs are still concrete: Between December 5 and 6, we will know if our calcio is finally up for a 100% record, placing all their six representatives to the next stage.
Feature Photo Credit: Action Images via Reuters