ROME (Reuters) - Atalanta’s astonishing run to the quarter-finals in their debut Champions League campaign provided one of the most uplifting underdog stories of last season.
The Serie A side’s free-flowing, fearless football earned them many admirers across the continent and strengthened their claim of being the ultimate modern-day giant killer.
That title could become undisputed if they take their biggest scalp yet when Real Madrid travel to Lombardy on Wednesday.
The 13-times European champions travelled with 11 fit senior outfield players, leading to some cautious optimism in Italy that Atalanta could continue their strong recent form by springing an upset.
Another slow start in the league this season raised familiar doubts about the club's ability to continue challenging at the top level.
But as usual, they silenced the doubters in style and have now lost once in their last 14 league games, a run that has taken them to fifth place in Serie A, two points from Juventus in third.
"We are free and calm,” coach Gian Piero Gasperini said. “We're not the favourites (to beat Real) and we don't have the obligation to go through. We want to measure ourselves against this team to understand what we're made of.”
SECOND TIME LUCKY
The ease with which Atalanta have adapted to life as a Champions League competitor could be a cause of concern for Zinedine Zidane’s illustrious visitors.
Other than a 5-0 hammering at home to Liverpool in November, their second group stage experience proved to be a relatively calm affair as the Bergamo side drew at home against Ajax and Midtjylland and won all their away games, including a superb 2-0 triumph at Anfield.
It was a far cry from the drama of their debut campaign in Europe’s top competition.
In 2019/20, they lost their first three group games to leave elimination looking certain, only to pick up seven points from their return matches against Manchester City, Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk and pip the Ukrainians to second place.
Yet it hasn't all been plain sailing this season.
A fallout between club captain Alejandro Gomez and Gasperini threatened to derail their progress.
Instead, the club backed their manager, sold the talismanic Argentine to Sevilla in January, and they haven’t looked back.
Gomez was crucial to the club’s growth and success in recent years, winning Serie A midfielder of the year in 2019/20 and scoring 59 goals in six-and-a-half seasons in Bergamo.
But since his last appearance for the club on Dec.16, Atalanta have lost one game out of 16, winning 10.
The affair was the latest example of Atalanta possessing the kind of consistency on the pitch and decision-making off it that some of their more illustrious rivals would die for. Their rise has been a triumph of good recruitment and management over financial firepower.
As Gasperini says, Atalanta have little to prove and little to lose, but taking down European football's most decorated club would be the biggest moment yet in the remarkable story unfolding in the small Lombardy city.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Toby Davis)