We should all take a moment to be thankful for this year’s Champions League group. Yes, it’s more than a slight disappointment to many that they won’t be able to travel—especially to Amsterdam for reasons—but it’s a great group nonetheless.
One of the problems with the Champions League is the entrenched group of European Elite teams, which tend to create the same match ups every single year. Such as Manchester City vs. Lyon.
That is not a problem with this year’s Group D. We have FC Midtjylland, a Champions League debutant. We have Ajax, who despite their status as a European elite, haven’t faced off against Liverpool since 1966. And we have Atalanta, who just made their Champions League debut last year, and who Liverpool have never faced.
But just because Atalanta doesn’t have history against Liverpool, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have history. Quite the contrary!
Atalanta was founded in 1907 by a group of Swiss students based in Bergamo, in the Lombardy province of Italy. They named the club after the Greek hero of the same name, described by Stephen Fry in his fantastic book Heroes:
“Her supreme swiftness and unmatched ability as a huntress made Atalanta a natural devotee of the goddess of Chastity and the Chase, Artemis, to whom she committed herself, heart and soul.”
Pretty badass, actually. Can we agree more sports teams need to follow this route when thinking up a name? I hear there’s a football team in Washington DC that’s having an issue at the moment. Just a suggestion.
But I digress. Because of their name, they are also known as La Dia (“The Goddess”)—Atalanta is a goddess in some versions of the myth—and I Nerazzurri (“The Black and Blues”).
The Italian Football Federation was not too impressed with Atalanta, and wouldn’t even recognize the club until 1914. The club then merged with a local rival in 1920, and moved to its current ground, Gewiss Stadium, in 1928. The club was finally admitted into the Italian football league in 1929, and earned their first promotion to Serie A in 1937. Although the club mostly remained a top-flight club throughout its history, they have been relegated frequently along the way, most recently in 2010. They even spent a solitary season, 1981, in Serie C.
Their modern history, including what brings them to the Champions League, started in 2016/17 when manager Gian Piero Gasperini took over the reins at Atalanta. He struggled, initially, but quickly righted the ship. By the end of the season, Atalanta had risen to 4th in the table, their best-ever league position. Gasperini took Atalanta to a respectable 7th placed finish the following season, and yet another best-ever finish—3rd—in 2018/19, including a 13-match unbeaten run in the league. And last year they finished 3rd again; this season also included an impressive run—a 9-match winning streak—the longest in the club’s history.
European History and Honor
Atalanta have just one major honor to their name: the 1962/63 Coppa Italia. They’ve finished runners-up in the domestic cup competition three more times, including in 2018/19, but that one victory remains their sole piece of silverware.
Although Atalanta are only in their second ever Champions League campaign, they do have some European history to boast about. In 1987/88, they became one of only two non-first division teams (an honor shared with Cardiff City) to reach the semifinals of a European competition, the European Cup Winners’ Cup. They also reached the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) quarterfinals in 1990/91, losing out to domestic rival Inter Milan.
They didn’t qualify for Europe again until 2017, when they qualified for the Europa League group stages. Atalanta made it out of the group, but fell to Dortmund in the Round of 32, 4-3 on aggregate. Their 7th placed finish in 2018 once again qualified them for Europe, but they failed to advance to the Group Stage after failing to get past FC Copenhagen in the playoff. Perhaps they had revenge on their mind when they traveled to Denmark and dished out a 4-0 thrashing to Midtjylland?
Finally, Atalanta made their Champions League debut last year. And they made it count, reaching the quarterfinals along the way. Amazingly, they became just the second team to qualify from a group after losing its first three matches. They saw off Valencia 8-4 on aggregate, before losing to eventual finalists PSG, 2-1.
Atalanta have been an exciting team to watch over the past few years. And they’ve shown the ability to ride a wave of momentum under manager Gasperini. Liverpool are likely to have their hands (or feet) full in Italy this Wednesday. But it’s the Champions League. Tough competition and excellent football is exactly what we want to see.