Ata­lanta’s as­cent in Serie A is a re­sult of home­grown tal­ent

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

In terms of salaries, Ata­lanta ranks 15th in Serie A. On the field, how­ever, it’s been a dif­fer­ent story for the pro­vin­cial club, which has re­lied on home­grown tal­ent to be­come the best team in the Ital­ian league over the last seven rounds.

Af­ter gain­ing 19 out of a pos­si­ble 21 points since Sept. 26, Ata­lanta has rock­eted up the stand­ings to fifth place to make qual­i­fy­ing for Europe a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity.

The Berg­amo squad has won four straight and achieved three con­sec­u­tive clean sheets in which it has outscored the op­po­si­tion 70.

“We’re on a fantastic streak but the most im­por­tant thing has been the way we’ve been play­ing and that the squad and play­ers have been im­prov­ing con­tin­u­ously,” Ata­lanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini said.

Gasperini’s job was at risk when Ata­lanta lost four of its five open­ing matches, but club pres­i­dent An­to­nio Per­cassi’s faith in the coach has proved de­ci­sive.

Ata­lanta fea­tures nine home­grown play­ers on its first team — the most in Serie A — and reg­u­larly uses them.

Play­ers like 22-year-old de­fend­ers Mat­tia Cal­dara and An­drea Conti, 21-year-old striker An­drea Pe­tagna — all mem­bers of Italy’s un­der-21 squad — and 22-yearold mid­fielder Roberto Gagliar­dini, who was given his first call up to Italy’s se­nior na­tional team this month af­ter only nine Serie A ap­pear­ances, are in the team.

Then there’s 19-year-old Ivory Coast mid­fielder Franck Kessie, who first spent time on the youth squad af­ter ar­riv­ing in Jan­uary 2015. He leads the team with four goals this sea­son.

“It’s a mat­ter of pride for us and for the club,” Gagliar­dini said of the wide­spread use of home­grown play­ers.

Added Cal­dara: “We’re friends be­fore we’re team­mates.”

The youth move­ment was on full dis­play in Ata­lanta’s last match, a 3-0 win at Sas­suolo in which Cal­dara and Conti scored and Gagliar­dini pro­vided the as­sist for the open­ing goal by Ale­jan­dro “Papu” Gomez.

The vic­tory over Sas­suolo was sig­nif­i­cant be­cause it gave Ata­lanta brag­ging rights as the league’s top pro­vin­cial squad.

Sas­suolo set a club record by fin­ish­ing sixth last sea­son to qual­ify for the Europa League, an achieve­ment Ata­lanta would like to em­u­late.

In its 109-year his­tory, Ata­lanta has spent 56 sea­sons in Serie A — more than any other club which has never won the top di­vi­sion.

Its only ma­jor tro­phy was the 1963 Ital­ian Cup, be­sides six Serie B ti­tles. Ata­lanta also reached the Cup Win­ners’ Cup semi­fi­nals in 1988 while com­pet­ing in Serie B — one of the best per­for­mances by a non-first di­vi­sion club in a ma­jor UEFA com­pe­ti­tion.

The club has also had its trou­bles, get­ting docked six points in 2011-12 for a wide­spread bet­ting and match-fix­ing scan­dal that ended the ca­reer of club cap­tain Cris­tiano Doni, who was ar­rested.

Ata­lanta was also docked two points the fol­low­ing sea­son but it man­aged to avoid rel­e­ga­tion from Serie A on both oc­ca­sions.

With a pop­u­la­tion of 120,000, Berg­amo is a mid-sized city that is con­sid­ered part of the wider Mi­lan met­ro­pol­i­tan area, which made a 2-1 win over In­ter Mi­lan last month es­pe­cially sweet.

Gasperini, in his first sea­son at Ata­lanta, was hardly given a chance at In­ter, where he was fired af­ter five win­less matches in Septem­ber 2011.

Berg­amo at­tracts many Mi­lan res­i­dents for its air­port that is home to low-cost air­lines and the club is also a rel­a­tively low-cost af­fair.

Ata­lanta, which pays its play­ers a to­tal of 24 mil­lion eu­ros ($26.5 mil­lion) per sea­son, is level on points with fourth-place Lazio, which pays its play­ers more than twice as much.

In July, Ata­lanta sold Marten de Roon to Mid­dles­brough for 14 mil­lion eu­ros ($15 mil­lion), a year af­ter pay­ing Heeren­veen 1.5 mil­lion eu­ros ($1.6 mil­lion) for the Dutch mid­fielder. That helped Ata­lanta earn a 6 mil­lion euro ($6.5 mil­lion) profit in the off­sea­son trans­fer mar­ket.

“We’re en­joy­ing the mo­ment and it pro­vides us with ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion to con­tinue along this path,” Gasperini said.

Hav­ing helped launch the ca­reers of play­ers like Roberto Don­adoni, Chris­tian Vieri and Filippo In­za­ghi — plus cur­rent AC Mi­lan stand­outs Ric­cardo Mon­to­livo and Gi­a­como Bon­aven­tura — Ata­lanta has long been a start­ing spot for play­ers who later achieved great­ness.

And with coaches like Mar­cello Lippi, Ce­sare Pran­delli and An­to­nio Conte mak­ing stops in Berg­amo, it’s also been on the road to man­age­rial suc­cess.

The club’s cur­rent for­tune will be tested against Roma on Sun­day and in games against Ju­ven­tus and Mi­lan — the top three teams in the stand­ings — be­fore the hol­i­day break.

“We’ve got a Tour de Force await­ing us un­til Christ­mas but we’ve got en­thu­si­asm,” Gasperini said. “So let’s see where it takes us.”

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