Coppa Italia final against Juventus another opportunity for Atalanta to underline their growing stature

Gian Piero Gasperini's team have secured Champions League place for third year in succession and are safe in Serie A top four

In March last year, the president of Juventus, Andrea Agnelli, addressed the FT Business of Football Summit in London. He stressed the need for the elite end of his sport to “protect its investments”. But he chose an unfortunate example to illustrate his theme.

“I have great respect for everything that Atalanta are doing,” he said, of the club who had gatecrashed the upper storeys of Italian football, “but without history in international competitions and thanks to just one great season, they had direct access into the primary European club competition. Is that right?” he asked.

If ever a remark has come back to bite, it is that.

Agnelli was focusing on Atalanta’s upstart debut in the Champions League, in 2019-20. It was a marvellous first-time adventure that was only ended by two last-gasp Paris Saint-Germain goals in the quarter-finals. Nor was it a one-off.

Last weekend, Atalanta secured a Champions League place for next season – the third year in succession they will be in club football’s most prestigious company. They may not be part of Italy’s established royalty, but they are not easily evicted from Serie A’s top four.

Twelve months after Agnelli’s remarks ruffled feathers in Bergamo, the Juventus president was busy leading plans for the stillborn European Super League, a project designed to preserve the status of the so-called ‘superclubs’.

His Juventus, who have fallen a long way short of their bid to win a 10th successive league title, are suddenly in greater need of protection than most. This coming weekend, Serie A’s last match day, they will depend not only on themselves but on results elsewhere if they are to scramble up from fifth place into the top four.

One particular match will preoccupy them: AC Milan's trip to Atalanta.

Milan are fourth and one of two clubs Juventus could leapfrog, and by doing so, avoid the ignominy of going into next season’s Europa League. Atalanta are safely in the top four. It would be only human to see Milan more motivated for that game.

Far more important for Atalanta is Wednesday's Coppa Italia final against Juventus, from whom they took four points in the league this season and against whom they gleefully measure the extent of their rise. Juve operate with an annual wage-bill of a shade under €250m, a great chunk of it channelled to Cristiano Ronaldo. Atalanta’s salary outgoings come to around €40m.

A Cup triumph would truly endorse one of most compelling fairytales of the last three years. “Winning a trophy would be a crowning moment for everything we’ve achieved, ” said the manager Gian Piero Gasperini, formerly a Juventus player and youth coach.

“People say Atalanta don’t win the prizes. But for a club like this, to be in the Champions League for three years running is something very special. A trophy would be the icing on the cake, but whatever happens in the final, I look at us as winners.”

The last time Atalanta lifted a major trophy was 1963, their sole Coppa Italia. Since then Juventus have won the league 24 times, including the nine on the trot up until this season, and collected nine Coppa Italias and five major European trophies. Were it not for the recent head-to-head record, they would be overwhelming favourites.

The occasion, at the Mapei stadium in Reggio Emilia, is a significant milestone in the return of spectators to arenas. The Italian health authorities have allowed just over 4,000 to attend – the capacity is just over 20,000 – provided they have met Covid-test and vaccination requirements.

For those who travel from Bergamo to support Atalanta, it will be a poignant journey. Their last great expedition in numbers was to San Siro for the February 2020 Champions League quarter-final against Valencia, where Atalanta won 4-1. Within days Bergamo had become an epicentre of Covid-19 infections, the mingling of crowds at the match cited as a possible catalyst for the virus’s spread.

The night will be special, too, for Gigi Buffon, very likely his last competitive match for Juventus. The 43-year-old goalkeeper, first choice in this season’s Cup matches, and with 684 Juve games to his name, has said he will leave the club this summer.

If Atalanta do not write their fairy tale, few would begrudge the respected Buffon his happy ending.

Published: May 19, 2021 06:44 AM

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