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Analysing Atalanta’s rise to prominence under Gian Piero Gasperini



Atalanta amazed another fine result over the weekend after their 2-2 draw at home against Juventus. It was another scalp to add to their list of decent showings this season under new manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, as they continued their surge towards an automatic Europa League qualification spot. Against all odds, their impressive form has pumped them up to fifth place in the Serie A table, and they are currently keeping both Milan clubs out of the European qualification places.

Gasperini was appointed as manager of the club before the start of this season, and early on in his stint, he seemed destined to leave the club following a poor run of results that saw the Bergamo-based club lose four of their first five games and had them hovering around the relegation spots. It seemed very likely that they were going to stay there for the course of the season, but Gasperini’s instinctive risk-taking paid off as they went on a nine-match unbeaten run, which included eight wins, a streak that included successes over sides like Napoli, Roma and Inter Milan.

The key to that vein of success has been Gasperini’s undisputed belief in the club’s youth systems. Atalanta have one of the best youth academies in European football and some of the club’s alumni include Italian legends Gaetano Scirea and Roberto Donadoni and current stars Giacomo Bonaventura and Manolo Gabbiadini amongst several other players who have gone on to make a name for themselves around Europe. A 2014 study by the CIES Football Observatory ranked their academy as the eighth-best in the world, with over 25 players playing in various European clubs in the continent’s top five leagues.

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This season has seen the rise of several star names, including that of Roberto Gagliardini and Mattia Caldara. The prior, a midfielder, has been at the club since 2001 and is an efficient box-to-box player who was influential to the club’s upturn in form. He had made just one appearance for the club prior to this season and made 14 this season before his brilliant displays caught the eye of Inter Milan, who snapped him up in the January transfer window. At 23, he has a bright future ahead of him and even earned his first Italian cap in a friendly against The Netherlands.

Caldara, too, has been born and brought up in Bergamo and plays in the heart of defence under Gasperini’s 3-4-3 formation and has cemented his spot in the first team. He has become one of the best defenders in Serie A this season and is an equally as threatening in attack, as he is in defence. A composed figure at the back, he, just like Gagliardini, has earned a move to the higher brass of Serie A, with Juventus snapping him up as a future prospect. However, the Bianconeri did loan him back to Atalanta, and he will remain there until the end of the 2017-18 season.

Another star that has turned up for them this season has been wing-back, Andrea Conti, also a product of their youth setup. He has been key to Gasperini’s 3-4-3 system, playing down the right side and along with Leonardo Spinazzola on the opposite wing, providing a crucial attacking threat to opposition defences. Together, the two have combined for seven goals and 10 assists – with Conti scoring the opener against Juventus (Spinazzola bagged an own goal, too) and their presence has been a statement of Gasperini’s tactical prowess.

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Similar to sides like Monaco and Borussia Dortmund, Atalanta possesses a host of fine talent, and are almost certain to be dissected this season. Franck Kessié looks the most likely to leave this summer, with the likes of AC Milan, Manchester United and Chelsea interested in the 20-year-old midfielder, according to The Sun. He has been another revelation this season and fees rising to £30 million have been talked about. Other names in the side include forward Andrea Petagna, captain and midfielder Papu Gomez, and Swiss midfielder Remo Freuler.

After failing to impress at Inter, the rise of Atalanta can be seen as Gasperini’s finest managerial achievement so far and he will be the most important figure if it is likely to continue. In a season where everything has gone exactly as expected, Gasperini’s Atalanta have been the brightest spark and a refreshing team to watch in Serie A. Their 2-0 win over Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo was a tactical masterclass and the turning point for them this season, and should they seal automatic qualification for European football, they must be vary of some of the other clubs’ prior experiences.

Fellow Serie A outfit Sassuolo qualified for the Europa League this season after finishing sixth in the previous campaign, but European distractions have hampered their domestic form this season and they spent most of this season are fighting to keep their top division status alive.

The 7-1 away defeat to Inter Milan was their only major blip this season, as they’ve managed to hold their own for the most part. They are currently ahead of both Milan clubs, who they are very likely to finish above, as they are currently on 64 points gained from 34 games – a record that’s seen them win 19 times. From 13th to a top six finish in the most inspiring fashion, this has been an impressive renaissance of Atalanta and Gian Piero Gasperini.

AC Milan

Victory in Milan, but is this another false dawn for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger?

Arsenal were triumphant in Milan despite their recent miserable form.

Jake Jackman



Photo: Getty Images

Arsenal ended their losing run of four matches with an excellent performance away to AC Milan in the Europa League. This competition has the potential to save the Gunners season and the commitment from every player suggested that they want to go all the way.

They were coming up against a team full of confidence under Gennaro Gattuso. Milan hadn’t lost a match since the end of December. The Serie A club hadn’t conceded a goal in six and had won five of those inside ninety minutes.

These sides came into this fixture in remarkably different form, but football is played on grass and not on paper.

Despite Milan having more attempts, it was Arsenal who created the better chances. They had a couple of half-chances early on before the opening goal.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has had a hot and cold start to life in a Gunners’ shirt, but he was one of the best players on the pitch in Italy. His goal was emphatically taken as he drove the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma.

It is important to capitalise when you are on top, especially away from home in European competitions and Arsenal did just that. As the first-half progressed, they continued to create the better opportunities. Both Danny Welbeck and Mkhitaryan had good chances to double the visitors’ lead, but they were squandered.

(Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

In stoppage-time of half-time, Arsenal scored a second to give them a commanding lead in the tie. It was a great move from the team and Mesut Ozil found Aaron Ramsey who coolly rounded Donnarumma before putting the ball into the net.

The first-half performance from Arsenal was one of the best that supporters have seen this season. They were better all over the pitch and showed the work rate that they had lacked in previous weeks. Milan pushed in the second half, but they couldn’t penetrate the Gunners’ defence.

Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi were both excellent. Arsene Wenger will be hoping that both are returning to their best after some uncharacteristic errors in previous matches. The centre-back pairing made eight ball recoveries and were always in the right position on Thursday.

Patrick Cutrone is a teenager with a big future, but the young striker had no luck out of the Arsenal defence and that will encourage the manager.

Another player to emerge with credit is Danny Welbeck. The ineligibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the injury of Alexandre Lacazette means that the Englishman started the game up front for Arsenal. It was a huge opportunity for him after being pushed down the pecking order at the club and he took it with both hands.

The Englishman worked tirelessly and caused problems with his movement.

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Although his final product wasn’t great, he was a constant threat and led the defensive effort from the front. Welbeck will never be a leading Premier League striker, but he is effective in matches such as this one. He deserves more opportunities during the run-in.

It would be too soon to get carried away for Arsenal fans. There are still questions regarding Arsene Wenger and the work rate of the players, but this was an excellent performance that finally provides the club with positive momentum. They have had a miserable few weeks and the supporters can get excited about their team once again.

When the draw was made, a lot of supporters checked their expectations when it came to the Europa League. Milan were the overwhelming favourites, but Arsenal have taken a dominant position in the tie and should be able to finish the job in London.

If they can do that, they will move into the quarter-final stage. Although it will be difficult to win it, they will have as good a chance as any.

There have been many false dawns for Arsenal in recent years and this could be another one. That said, it takes enormous character to go away to a huge stadium like the San Siro after a poor run of form and win comfortably.

Considering the criticism that they have had for their lack of desire, few would have thought the Gunners to be capable of a result like this.

It is now up to Wenger to prove that he can get this level of effort and performance out of his players on a regular basis. The Frenchman remains in a difficult position with no margin for error. If he is going to keep his job, he needs to finish the season strongly and win the Europa League.

It won’t be an easy challenge, but this performance and result will give him hope that he can upset the odds to claim his first European trophy.

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Champions League

Tottenham Hotspur 1-2 Juventus: Three talking points from Wembley

Tottenham bowed out of Europe against an experienced Juventus side.

Rob Meech



Photo: Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur crashed out of the Champions League after Juventus produced an inspired fightback to progress to the quarter-finals. The in-form Son Heung-min had put Spurs 3-2 ahead on aggregate shortly before the interval, but two goals in three second-half minutes changed the complexion of the tie.

First, Gonzalo Higuain stabbed home the equaliser before Paulo Dybala completed the comeback with a delicate finish. Harry Kane hit the post in the dying moments, but Spurs’ exit at the hands of last season’s runners-up was confirmed as they failed to score a second goal. Here are three talking points from Wembley Stadium..

Max Allegri outfoxes his Tottenham counterpart

So poor were Juventus in the first half that they were fortunate to be only one goal behind on the night and still in the tie. There was no indication of what was to come, as Max Allegri’s side transformed the match in the second period. At the final whistle, the Juve boss headed straight down the tunnel instead of venturing on to the pitch to celebrate with his players. But it was his tactical switch that paved the way for their victory.

With an hour on the clock, on came Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner, who injected much-needed pace and guile. The visitors changed formation and suddenly they were getting in between the lines, with Dybala becoming much more effective. Within minutes, Juve were 2-1 ahead and in their element. Once in front, they managed the game brilliantly and didn’t look like conceding. Mauricio Pochettino, who could only stand and watch it all unfold, had been outwitted by the master.

Future looks bright despite heartbreaking exit

Disappointment may be the overriding emotion for all involved at Tottenham right now, but once the dust has settled they should look back at their Champions League adventure with pride. For this was the season they arrived as a major force on the European stage. Victories over Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in a group they topped were huge fillips and evidence of their continued progress under Pochettino.

Spurs were unlucky to be drawn against a club of Juventus’ pedigree in the last 16 and it was the Italians’ knowhow that paid dividends in the heat of the battle. The hosts looked a little naive, but the experience will benefit them in the future. Tottenham are odds-on to finish in the top four and thereby qualify for the Champions League again next season. Should Pochettino be given the funds to invest in his squad this summer, the club’s fans can look forward to more nights under the spotlight.

In-form Son strikes again for Spurs

The South Korean, who was given the nod ahead of Erik Lamela in the starting line-up, vindicated his selection with the opening goal at Wembley. Son had already gone close to breaking the deadlock and was causing Andrea Barzagli all sorts of problems with his marauding runs. There was more than a touch of fortune about the goal, which rebounded off his left leg and wrong-footed veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon, but it was no less than the Spurs forward deserved.

Son came close to levelling the tie in the latter stages but, ultimately, it was to be neither his nor Tottenham’s night. With 16 goals in all competitions this season, the 25-year-old is making a big impression. He was the home side’s most potent attacking force, upstaging both Kane and Dele Alli at Wembley. Son has finally established himself in the starting XI and Spurs fans will hope he can continue to ease the goalscoring burden on Kane.

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Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Rob Meech



Photo: Reuters

Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.

A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.

However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.

Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…

Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends

But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.

That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.

As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.

Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.

The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.

Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.

Third time lucky for impressive Willian

The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.

But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.

It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.

He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.

Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.

Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.

It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.

Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?

Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say

It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.

Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.

Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.

However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.

A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.

Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.

Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.

It could be the decisive moment.

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