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UEFA Champions League

'Atalanta's Ronaldo'! Papu Gomez leads out Europe’s biggest overachievers in Champions League

12:00 PM WAT 18/09/2019
Gasperini Gomez Zapata Atalanta
The Dea have qualified for the Champions League for the first time and will have 3,000 proud Bergamaschi in Zagreb for Wednesday's meeting with Dinamo

Ahead of a crucial clash with Crotone on October 2, 2016, new Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini was stopped by a man outside his home in Bergamo.

After four defeats in his first five Serie A games in charge, the Piemontese naturally feared a dressing-down from an upset local.

However, the stranger told him, "I like your ideas. I'm convinced you will do well here." As Gasperini later admitted, "I thought he was making fun of me."

That Monday, Atalanta claimed a pivotal 3-1 victory at Crotone that Gasperini admits saved his job. It also earned him a free meal.

"I met that man again and he invited me to dinner at his house," Gasperini told Gazzetta dello Sport.

"He cooked a great risotto. Today, Paolo is a great friend. From risotto to risotto, we're in the Champions League..."

Indeed, on Wednesday evening, Atalanta will play in Europe's premier cup competition for the first time ever, against Dinamo Zagreb.

The 180 seats on the charter-plane to Croatia sold out in minutes. Thirty-five coaches will bring a further 1,500 supporters across the Alps.

All in all, there will be 3,000 proud Bergamaschi present at the Stadion Maksimir. Just before kick-off, they will unfurl a banner declaring, "Noi siamo arrivati!" ("We have arrived!").

It's certainly been one hell of a journey, for the fans, for the players, and for Gasperini. It was he who had to lift the entire club after last year's devastating Europa League play-off round exit at the hands of Copenhagen.

Atalanta had dominated the Danes over two legs but were eliminated 4-3 in a penalty shootout at Parken on August 30. It seemed as if the Dea's season was over before it had truly begun.

Gasperini was defiant, though. "This is a team that reacts," he told Sky Sport Italia immediately after the loss in Denmark. "They're all really positive guys."

They were in danger of drowning in a sea of negativity, though.

After the Copenhagen elimination, Gasperini stood before his players and asked them to come forward, one-by-one, and write on the white-board what they felt Atalanta's target for the season should be.

Josip Ilicic wrote "safety". He wasn't the only one, according to Gasperini. What's more, nobody wrote 'Champions League'.

Atalanta's players were clearly crestfallen at squandering the chance to embark on another European adventure, having reached the Europa League Round of 32 the season before.

It showed too. Atalanta lost three of their next five Serie A games, picking up just two points in the process. At that stage, safety was indeed the target.

When Gasperini needed a victory most, though, he got one: for Crotone in 2016, read Chievo in 2018. A 5-1 rout in Verona, featuring a hat-trick from the mercurial Ilicic, proved the first of four successive wins that got Atalanta back on track.

There were further blips before the midway point of the season but, by that stage, Duvan Zapata was in the goalscoring form of his life, netting 14 times in eight games.

He made it 15 in nine with the equaliser in a remarkable game with top-four rivals Roma on January 27 in Bergamo, when Atalanta came from 3-0 down to claim a draw.

It was at that point, as Timothy Castagne admitted, that the players began to believe as if anything was possible. Three days later, Atalanta ended Juventus' four-year stranglehold on the Coppa Italia.

They didn't just beat the Bianconeri either; they battered them, showcasing their Ajax-like brand of attacking football in a rousing 3-0 win.

Gasperini admitted that for the majority of his coaching career he had been too dogmatic in his approach; too preoccupied with retaining numerical superiority in defence.

Now, though, he is prepared to take risks, even with a 'smaller' side. "Just because you're humble, doesn't mean you can't be ambitious," he reasoned. "I firmly believe you are more likely to get good results if you play good football.”

His Atalanta side – comprised of shrewd signings and graduates from arguably the best youth academy in Italy – are as aesthetically pleasing as they come, an adventurous outfit willing to go one-v-one at the back.

Gasperini trusts in these players. He believes in them. None more than his skipper, Alejandro Gomez.

At 31 years of age, 'Papu' is playing the best football of his career. No player across Europe's 'Big Five' leagues created more chances than the Argentine last season (112).

Zapata may have grabbed more headlines because of his goalscoring exploits but Papu was the one who made it all happen on the field.

He played a key role off it too. With his mix of inspiration and dedication, the attacking midfielder embodies Atalanta's remarkable resilience, their commitment to the collective cause. He is, as Gasperini calls him, "Atalanta's Ronaldo".

Nobody takes his role more seriously in Bergamo than Gomez. The Copenhagen setback, coupled with the fact that he had missed one of the penalties, only made him more determined to get Atalanta back into Europe.

As he said at one point last season, "I spend more time with [my team-mates] than my family!"

That sense of togetherness, and drive, was evident during Atalanta's remarkable run-in.

Between March and May, they didn't lose a single Serie A game. Even more impressively, during that 13-match unbeaten run, they twice came from behind to defeat top-four sides away from home: Napoli and Lazio.

They also drew with Juventus in Turin before defeating Sassuolo on the final day of the season to clinch their place in the Champions League with a third-place finish.

To place above Inter and AC Milan was a staggering achievement for a club with just the 13th-highest wage bill in Serie A, making them arguably the biggest over-achievers in Europe.

"It's undeniable that achieving Champions League qualification with a provincial club is even more satisfying," Gasperini admitted.

He could have left for one of the big boys during the summer. Roma were particularly keen but Gasperini opted to stay put. It's easy to understand why. He is adored at Atalanta and, over the summer, he was made an honorary citizen of Bergamo.

Gasperini and his players are now determined to repay that love by lighting up the Champions League.

"We want to give the people of Bergamo enthusiasm and joy because throughout this whole story," he explained, "the thing that moved us the most was seeing happiness in the eyes of the fans."

Wednesday night's game in Zagreb is, therefore, destined to be an emotional occasion for the fans, the players and the coaching staff.

Atalanta have finally arrived. And with big ideas and plenty of ambition.

They should do well here.