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Pyrrhic victory: Atalanta's bright season dimmed by coronavirus

Sunday 15th March 2020
La Dea mourns for a city crippled by Covid-19.
La Dea mourns for a city crippled by Covid-19.

Atalanta garner praise across Europe for their football. Relentless attacking, quick transitions and an insatiable appetite for goals make Gian Piero Gasperini’s team a joy to watch. Even with Duvan Zapata's injury trouble this season, they remain far and away Europe's top-scoring team. Alejandro Gomez and Josip Ilicic sparkle. Marten De Roon provides a sturdy vanguard in front of the fluid defence. Wingbacks Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens' stock increased every single week. A favourite viewing for neutrals, Atalanta aren't quite ready to challenge for the Scudetto. Another year of development and some shrewd acquisitions are necessary but the coronavirus' rampage through Bergamo and northern Italy dampens those hopes.

It should be a time to celebrate, a golden period in La Dea's history. Instead, their recent victory over Valencia was tinged with sadness. A topsy-turvey 3-4 battle qualified the Italians for the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time in the club’s history but no vociferous fans for either club greeted every goal with elation. No passionate chants, no cries of despair, no rapture or despondence. Instead, an eerily empty Mestalla served as a backdrop under the setting Spanish sun. 

COVID-19 represents the greatest health crisis for a century, drawing worrying parallels to the Spanish Flu pandemic that decimated the world's population between the World Wars. Football holds a remarkable power to bring communities together, however. Even with Bergamo crippled by coronavirus, the town stopped on Tuesday evening to watch La Dea.

Negative tactics do not exist in Gasperini’s coaching mentality. Despite already leading by a handsome three-goal margin on aggregate, Atalanta came out roaring. The squad's spirit and camaraderie echoed the town’s own resilience. Suitably, goals began to flow.

Theirs wasn't a perfect performance by any stretch of the imagination. The rampant Italians shipped three goals. Cynics may suggest a more streetwise European team would punish them. It's difficult to imagine Bayern Munich or Paris Saint-Germain team accommodating Atalanta’s playing style. It's impossible to imagine Atletico Madrid, slayers of European Champions Liverpool, doing so. Atalanta admittedly benefitted from drawing the weakest group winner. Whatever other circumstances might produce, the 8-4 aggregate score aptly reflected their dominance.

Gil Orobici powers reach unprecedented heights under Gasperini. A third-place finish last year and the promise of a similar finish this year were overshadowed by Covid-19. The club play their Champions League home games at San Siro, their own ground deemed insufficient by UEFA. Milan isn't spared by the virus. The renowned ground stood empty for the match, just like Mestalla, and will remain so for the forthcoming weeks.

The situation evolves every day but all signs point towards the season being cancelled. The Champions League is at a standstill. In an ironic twist, Atalanta may claim a strange accolade if it too is called off. They would become the only side to never be knocked out of Europe’s premier competition.

Certainly, the current I Nerazzurri squad can their own. Teamwork binds Gasperini’s squad together, allowing them to weave a special magic that extends beyond the footballing population in Bergamo. Even with the city in isolation, fans moved online to voice their support for the team and urge everyone to help one another. Ultras responded, donating a large sum to the city's hospital staff to keep them on the job.

When La Dea returns to the pitch remains to be seen. For now, the city’s population can be heartened by their team’s performances.They need the same fighting spirit and commitment to face the battles that lie ahead.

Rob Pratley

When not found watching almost any European football coverage, Soccer Saturday, EFL Review on Quest, or the English Premier League, Rob enjoys crying passionately at repeats of Chelsea's Champions League Final triumph because it is so emotional. An avid football fan, he has an opinion on every team, every league and every player - from Perry Ng to Tammy Abraham, to Mark Creighton, Kim Jin-Su and Aarom Kuhl. Outside of writing for It's Round and White, Rob is a Black Belt at Tae-Kwon-Do and has an impressive collection of accidents and injuries.

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