Assi di Coppe: Atalanta’s Champions League Masterpiece

Two infinite minutes. That’s how long it took for the referee to check Alejandro Gomez’s position in a pass by Robin Gosens, before ruling that El Papu was not in offside when he served Timothy Castagne a golden assist for the goal that propelled Atalanta into history.

La Dea did it. Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta conquered an astonishing qualification to the Champions League knockout phase at first try as they trailed Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 in the last round of Group C. From Castagne’s goal, which came after 66 minutes of passion, it was all downhill for the Nerazzurri, which doubled their lead with Mario Pasalic and let Robin Gosens put the cherry on top of a monstrous performance during added time.

As Gian Piero Gasperini’s band overtook the shocked Ukrainian side in the last group stage lap, Manchester City gave a big hand to Atalanta as they trampled Dinamo Zagreb 4-1 in a concomitant game, leaving also the Croatian champions behind the Bergamaschi in the final standing of Group C.

Now, how on earth did all this happen?

Group celebration for Atalanta after Robin Gosens scored the goal that wrapped their qualification the Champions League knockout stages. La Dea made it!

Let’s rewind to October 22: Atalanta had just left the Eithad Stadium with their bones crushed, the Citizens having unleashed five goals on the unfortunate Bergamaschi to shatter their early delusional lead. Their first Champions League participation was proving an overwhelming experience for Gasperini’s side, which had collected three losses out of their three initial games.

Atalanta’s first test ever in the top European competition had resulted in a shocking 0-4 setback at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb. Two weeks later, Shakthar snatched a mocking late win at San Siro (Atalanta’s European den), coming from behind to frustrate Duvan Zapata’s lead. Then, the brutal Manchester hammering happened. Atalanta’s third place in Serie A last season had been a nice fairytale, but when it comes to Champions League – well, thanks for participating.

The Nerazzurri earning a courageous 1-1 draw in the second leg against a yawning Manchester City – too big was the gap between the Citizens and their Group C contenders – seemed only good for the Bergamaschi to tally their first Champions League point ever.

But now? How do you explain now, how do you logically explain that Atalanta have raised from their ashes to wrap a late qualification with 2 wins in a row and only 7 points – while last edition Semi Finalist Ajax, to name one, lost the train to the knockout stage despite collecting 10 in Group H.

The quality of the opposition, of course. But don’t tell Gian Piero Gasperini that this was an easy group, as he prepared to overcome the last hurdle without three of his key players – defender Rafael Toloi and forwards Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata. Don’t tell this man who, for a moment tonight, must have come back with memory to that day when he had seemingly wasted his ticket to the big show.

It was the summer of 2011 when Gian Piero Gasperini was appointed head coach of Inter, his first career opportunity to manage an international club, only to be hastily given the boot after just five (pretty dismal, if truth be told) league games. The Piedmontese coach thus fell back into football averageness, taking charge of Palermo first, then Genoa, before landing in Bergamo in 2016 to lead the Bergamaschi to two Europa League participations in a row. And now, this.

The Bergamaschi’s miracle has a first name and a last name: Gian Piero Gasperini, the coach who raised them up to the Serie A third place heights, two Europa League qualifications…and now THIS!

The trending joke among Italian football fans as the Atalanta miracle unfolded was that, as expected, there is going to be a Nerazzurri (black-and-blue) squad in the Champions League Round of 16, but it will not be Antonio Conte’s more famous one. It will be the lesser known Nerazzurri from Bergamo and their Inter-repudiated coach Gian Piero Gasperini, who perhaps was dreaming for the day he would take part to the European football Sweet Sixteen, but surely was expecting it to happen while in charge of Inter and not of the Regina delle Provinciali (“Queen-of-small-town-clubs,” as Atalanta are known in Italy)

Gasperini’s crew showed that a miracle was possible as they approached the match in Kharkiv – the exiled Shakhtar Donetsk’ European home – with determination since the very beginning, collecting 3 clear goal chances in the initial 15 minutes. The Nerazzurri coach, seeing his offensive options crippled by the concurrent absences of Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata, deployed Luiz Muriel from the start and advanced his midfielder and captain Alejandro Gomez on the front line to support him, with Mario Pasalic behind them.

Still, the lack of finalization skills risked playing a dirty trick on the Bergamaschi, and in the 37th minute it took a mind-blowing save by their goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini on a header by Júnior Moraes to prevent the home side from taking a lead that could have had a devastating effect on Atalanta’s morale.

The lucky escape however pushed Gomez and co. to take the matter more seriously in their hands after the break and eventually led them to breach into the Ukrainian defense in the 66th minute. Robins Gosens served his captain along the offside line, and El Papu’s pass from the left side found Timothy Castagne’s timely finish to put the visitors ahead.

The Belgian couldn’t even celebrate on the spot however, as the assistant referee’s flag was already raised well high to flag a possible offside on the part of his captain. Two interminable minutes ensued, as referee Felix Zwayer checked Gomez’s position with the VAR. Then, the technological oracle finally ruled: It wasn’t offside.

TImothy Castagne attempted to celebrate after scoring Atalanta’s opener, but his joy was delayed by two interminable minutes as the referee checked with the VAR on an alleged offside position

With Manchester City already comfortably ahead of Dinamo Zagreb, all the Bergamaschi had to do now was preserving their lead – which became even easier when Dodo naively hit Remo Freuler with a slap while trying to get free of him, leaving his side with one man less. A light slap, that of the Brazilian, but you know how these things go in football: Freuler collapsed down like he had been struck by lightning, and that was enough for the referee to take out his red card.

Mario Pasalic eventually rounded up for Atalanta, finishing with a header from a corner kick by Ruslan Malinovskiy – a former Shakhtar talent whom Gasperini had left on the bench, only to send him in when his side was struggling to win the opposition’s resistance.

The third goal was a stoppage time courtesy of Shakhtar defender Taras Stepanenko, who tried back pass the ball to his goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov, not realizing that Robin Gosens was lurking in the box, ready to anticipate the goalie to wrap his side’s 3-0 win.

Atalanta made history as they reached qualification to the Champions League knockout stage at their first participation, totalizing only seven points and only one of them in their initial four games.  

Raise your hands, those of you who believed this was possible on that night of October 22 in Manchester.

Or, on that day of September in 2011, when Gian Piero Gasperini left Inter with one point out of five games, believing that most likely his chances to break through in international football were over.   


December 11, 2019 – Champions League 2019-20 Group C

SCORERS: 66′ Castagne, 80′ Pasalic, 95′ Gosens

SHAKHTAR DONETSK (4-2-3-1): Pyatov; Dodo, Kryvtsov, Matviyenko, Ismaily; Alan Patrick, Stepanenko; Tete (59′ Marlos), Kovalenko (71′ Solomon), Taison; Junior Moraes (Khocholava, Marcos Antonio, Dentinho, Konoplyanka) Coach: Luis Castro
ATALANTA (3-4-2-1): Gollini; Djimsiti, Palomino, Masiello (61′ Malinovskyi); Castagne, De Roon, Freuler, Gosens; Pasalic, Gomez (90′ Hateboer); Muriel (71′ Ibanez) (Sportiello, Arana, Traorè, Barrow) Coach: Gasperini

REFEREE: Zwayer (Germany)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Dodo, Alan Patrick (S), Muriel (A); Red Card: Dodo (S); Extra Time: 1st Half 2′, 2nd Half 5′