Swashbuckling Atalanta look to give city ruined by coronavirus 'something to smile about' in Serie A

The club's Euro win over Valencia in February has been cited as a flashpoint for the pandemic that devastated the Bergamo region

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After the lockdown, the liberation. The club that defied the odds most poignantly in elite European football this season gave a city that almost broke under the pandemic “something to smile about”.

That was how Atalanta’s manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, put it on Sunday, visibly moved as he heard Bergamo’s adopted anthem, ‘I’ll be reborn, you’ll be reborn” welcome the sport back to a largely empty Gewiss Stadium.

Gasperini was reassured to see one aspect of a Bergamo altered forever by the thousands of local lives lost to Covid-19 seems unchanged: Atalanta still have a special appetite to entertain. They had scored three goals by half-time in their 4-1 win over Sassuolo.

Outside the arena, there was some disapproval. A group of supporters gathered to chant ‘football without fans is not football’, a protest against the resumption of Serie A under its imperfect circumstances, all matches being played behind closed doors.

But in Bergamo, a handsome, prosperous corner of northern Italy, the need for caution around gatherings of people is not in debate.

The last 'home' match Atalanta played, when an estimated 43,000 travelled from the Bergamo region to Milan's San Siro – their borrowed home for European fixtures – to watch the underdogs of the Champions League thrash Valencia in February is now cited as a flashpoint for the contagion under which Bergamo buckled, with an estimated 6,000 fatalities across the city from Covid-19.

“Nobody here can forget the ambulance sirens that filled out streets,” said the Atalanta director Umberto Marino. “We spent three months living through something like a war.”

But Atalanta, whose overwhelming of Valencia has put them in the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history, have their fairytale restored, a beacon again for most of their constituents.

They are on course to be in the same competition next season, too, at fourth in the Serie A table, six points ahead of Roma, and, three-and-a-half month pause or not, still in brilliant form.

When Duvan Zapata stopped to head in the fourth goal against Sassuolo, it took Atalanta’s tally of goals from their last four matches across competitions to 15.

Gasperini’s middle-budget, free-scoring swashbucklers are comfortably the most potent side in Italy’s top division, with their 74 goals from 26 games.

Which is why, beyond the emotions around Bergamo, and the goodwill towards the city from across Italy, there is a special anticipation about tonight’s visit by Lazio. The last seven encounters between these two clubs have produced 29 goals.

Lazio have also outscored the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus, and the Inter Milan of Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez this term, and since December have made themselves much the likeliest candidates to deprive Juve of a ninth successive scudetto. They need simply recover their pre-shutdown form, and get used to empty stadiums.

For Lazio the club, alas, the second part may not be too hard. Lazio are not new to behind-closed-doors football because the club have again and again failed to prevent a section of their support-base from bringing racist abuse into Italian and European stadiums, and been handed a series of bans. Theirs is a notoriety that persists.

They have a fine team, though, 20 years on from the last time Lazio lifted the Italian title, when Simone Inzaghi was a striker in his first season with the club. He is now emerging as an outstanding manager.

His task is to close a four point gap on Juventus over the next 12 matchdays (Juve have 11 matches left). His initial challenge is to refresh the instincts and rhythm Lazio were maintaining when Serie A closed down in March. At that point Inzaghi’s army were a juggernaut, 21 league matches unbeaten.

After 116 days without a competitive game, Inzaghi will need some stirring words. He could remind his players that their previous meeting with Atalanta was the launchpad for their thrilling tilt at the scudetto.

Back in October, Gasperini’s team travelled to Rome from Bergamo and were 3-0 up at half-time. Lazio had been run ragged. Inzaghi roused them in the dressing room. Final score: 3-3.

After that, Lazio won 11 on the trot, as striker Ciro Immobile soared towards his towering tally of 27 league goals so far. Since the comeback against Atalanta, Lazio have picked up 50 points from a possible 54.

“We felt we were onto something great,” said Inzaghi, “and of course there is a desire to pick things up from there, but we have seen, from watching other teams, it is hard when players have been sitting at home for so long.

“But there were more important things going on than football. All of us have been through a lot.”