Is there a greater sight in Serie A right now than the slippery bob-and-weave of Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez?
No. No there isn’t.
Marking Atalanta’s elusive number ten is like trying to pin a wave to the sand. Even the act of pigeonholing Gómez as simply an attacking midfielder does something of a disservice to his omnipresence across the pitch.
Yet, the 32-year-old and his thrilling side were held to an infuriating 2-2 draw against table-topping Juventus, leaving them nine points behind the Turin behemoths.
On the face of it, this is a staggering position for Gian Piero Gaspirini’s side to be in – all but assured of Champions League qualification for the second year running with the 13th highest wage bill in the division. Yet, had the ball fallen their way more often this season, Atalanta may have been even closer to a historic title.
The source of Atalanta’s opener against Juve on Saturday night was no surprise. Gómez wriggled past Rodrigo Bentancur – providing a glimpse into the future by playing at the base of midfield in the absence of Barcelona-bound Miralem Pjanic – before slipping in Duván Zapata with a sly reverse pass.
Matthijs de Ligt – who had been so badly missed against Milan earlier in the week – tussled with Zapata throughout in one of several enthralling duels across the pitch. De Ligt was quick to get as close to the physical Colombian as soon as the ball was fizzed into him and limited Zapata to just one blocked shot after his goal.
Atalanta dominated the remainder of the first half, restricting Juve to speculative efforts with a relatively restrained version of what is normally an unrelenting onslaught of attack. Across Europe’s top five leagues this season, only Bayern Munich can better their staggering 2.7 goals per game, breaking a litany of Serie A scoring records along the way.
But at the home of the defending champions, Atalanta played with an added sense of control to ensure they were not caught out on the break – as was the case when they met this season’s other title challengers Lazio in June.
Yet, Juventus looked reinvigorated after half time, in stark contrast to an all-too common sluggish opening salvo. Bentancur was pushing forward from his role as the side’s pivot and disrupting Atalanta’s possession as the game became more stretched. But just as La Dea looked to have weathered the storm, Juve were handed a lifeline by the outstretched arm of Marten de Roon.
Europe’s other elite leagues don’t come anywhere near to the number of penalties dished out by Serie A officials this season – with one spot kick awarded every other game on the peninsula.
Juve – and De Ligt in particular – have more often than not been on the wrong end of the whistle, but this penalty early in the second half was one of two Cristiano Ronaldo scored on the night. Between these conversions, Atalanta again took the lead with a perfect illustration of their strength in depth.
Having replaced their starting front three by the 70th minute, the more than able deputies Luis Muriel and Ruslan Malinovskyi combined for Atalanta’s second. No other Serie A side can come close to the 18 goals La Dea’s substitutes have plundered this season.
Evidently, the fact that they are nine points adrift of Juve is not a consequence of an inability to call upon talented replacements – which is arguably the root of Lazio’s stuttering title tilt since the restart. In fact, the sticking point for their championship charge lies in missed opportunities against weaker sides earlier in the campaign.
Atalanta have lost just one game against teams ranked ninth or higher this season – an undeserved defeat to Juve in November. Yet, they’ve walked away with zero points four times against teams below the top nine. They may have knocked seven past Torino and Lecce but they criminally lost to rock-bottom SPAL at the turn of the year.
Juve – on the other hand – have 17 wins and two draws from 19 games against opposition sitting tenth and downwards. With Lazio and Inter both faltering, Juve’s ninth-consecutive title looks all but assured thanks to their ability to beat the teams they ‘should’.
Saturday’s draw will be tinged with disappointment for Atalanta, but so should their lack of a concerted title tilt. However, this bitter aftertaste could be swiftly washed away by the sweet taste of European glory. Atalanta – for the first time in their history – are through to the Champions League quarter-finals.
The side which has been lighting up Serie A for the best part of four years are just three victories away from lifting the big-eared trophy. Not a bad fallback for a lack of domestic success.