Just to be writing this is an achievement in itself. Atalanta – the boys from Bergamo – came within a few minutes of the Champions League semi-final. Anybody who ever watched Italian football would rarely have thought they would be able to say those words.
In the end, though, the financial Goliath saw off David in a late twist that will have hurt the heart of most sporting romantics. Nobody could deny PSG have assembled a fine array of talents, but it has only been achieved with the kind of riches that would have made even Croesus blush. This is a reality of the game, of course, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it.
The odds were stacked against the Serie A side from the outset and the loss of Josip Ilicic – who we all wish a speedy return – combined with a clearly less than fully fit Papu Gomez handicapped them further. Yet they set out to climb this particular mountain with the attitude and determination which has characterised their memorable season. That they ultimately slithered back to earth was only a minor demerit.
In truth, they never quite scaled the heights that they have in many previous matches this campaign. Perhaps the absences and the sense of occasion told on them a little, but they still had the quality to score a wonderful opener that fuelled dreams of qualification. With Neymar dancing through the defence but firing shots wildly off target, maybe it was their destiny to progress. There were moments when it truly seemed like Marco Sportiello’s goal was being defended by some kind of higher power working alongside him.
It wasn’t quite enough and those who view football as only a matter of winning and losing will class that as failure. Some of us, however, with a broader view of the history of the game and the efforts of this provincial club to stand toe-to-toe with the nouveau riche will take leave to see things a little differently. There was no disgrace or dishonour in pushing the Parisians to dip right into the depths of their bank balance.
That’s a little churlish, in truth, because the Ligue 1 side did demonstrate flashes of football that Atalanta had no hope of competing with. The French outfit were constant aggressors late in the game and only some increasingly inept finishing kept Gian Piero Gasperini’s hopes alive. Every player that came off the bench for his opponents felt like Harry Enfield’s old character Loadsamoney waving a huge wad of cash in his face. Eventually the sheer scale of their match-winning talent was bound to tell – especially with Remo Freuler limping around in a fashion not dissimilar to Thomas Tuchel on the PSG bench.
To the victor, the spoils, but to the vanquished a huge slice of credit. The Bergamaschi have been a great team to watch this season and have delighted us with their free goal-scoring and never-say-die approach. That they got further than any other Italian side in Europe’s elite competition tells its own story. They are allowed a night to feel sorry for themselves, but after that, they should be proud of what they have achieved.
The future, of course, is for we scribes to speculate over. There is always the fear at smaller sides that someone will come along and snap up all their best talent and force them to build again. Atalanta have shown themselves adept at doing so but, nonetheless, it would be a shame to see this special group scattered to the four winds. You feel they have much more to give.
That will be up to the powers that be at the club. There is a core of a side there which – while the Champions League was always a stretch – could be seriously capable of mounting an even stronger challenge for Serie A in the years to come. This cycle will inevitably come to an end, but before it does, they could do things few would ever have thought possible.
They dazzled and they were determined, they were flamboyant and they fought hard, they were glorious and they were gutsy – all of which made them a joy to watch. That might not mean much to those who accept only victory but to some spectators it is worth quite a lot. It was thrilling while it lasted and it threatened to upset the established order and that is surely something for which we should all be grateful.
Giancarlo Rinaldi is the author of a number of books about Italian football. You can find out more about them here.