Adam Digby reports on Atalanta, one of the surprises of the European season so far. Usually, when looking at a league for an interesting and intriguing tale, the formula is very simple. Is there a particular player who's story people might not know that is currently grabbing the headlines? Which of the big teams are struggling? Which of the smaller sides are surprisingly high in the table? Accordingly, a newly promoted - and perennially yo-yoing club - sitting thirteenth in the table would barely register, let alone be one of the most compelling things to emerge from the Serie A season thus far.
Yet Lombardian side Atalanta, who have spent 35 years of their existence outside Italian football's top flight, are in exactly that position and are often known as 'Regina delle Provinciali' - Queen of the Provinces - in reference to their record of being the one team outside of the traditional big-city giants to excel. Hailing from the northern town of Bergamo, fans, players and club officials have always revelled in that small-town underdog status and embraced it as a weapon rather than a hindrance.
They have traditionally been aided by a superb scouting and youth development network which has consistently unearthed players who have gone on to become some of the biggest names in the history of Calcio. From men with names as great as Juventus legend Gaetano Scirea and Milan idol Roberto Donadoni, through to Alessio Tacchinardi and Domenico Morfeo, Atalanta have a tradition for uncovering talent that lives on in current Serie A stars Riccardo Montolivo, Giampaolo Pazzini and Ivan Pelizzoli who also began their careers with the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia club's youth sector.
Yet it is not a crop of home-grown players that make the current team so interesting and for the whole story we must first look back to last season when they topped the Serie B table, earning promotion to the top flight after the previous years relegation. Italian football always seems to have a match-fixing case and this past summer saw Atalanta caught up in the latest one when talismanic captain Cristaino Doni and important defender Thomas Manfredini were accused of being ring leaders in the 'Calcio scommesse' scandal.
The club were punished with six point penalty, Doni given a three and a half year ban while Manfredini has been absolved of any involvement and many times the phrase 'Crapa olta' was repeated as the season drew nearer. It is basically a variation of the English phrase 'keep your chin up' in the local dialect and the clubs fans on the Curva Nord made that their only demand for the new campaign as they rallied behind the Nerazzurri.
Being newly-promoted is hard enough but to do so and then start already six points behind the competition saw them become instant favourites for a return to the second tier, but the reality is very very different. The first thirteen games have seen them collect five wins and six draws, quickly eradicating the deficit and recording impressive results such as a victory over Palermo and draws against Udinese, Inter and, most recently, Napoli.
Closer inspection shows that much of this success is due to an incredibly intelligent and well considered summer transfer campaign that saw the arrival of Luca Cigarini, Matteo Brighi, Andrea Masiello and the return of in-demand winger Ezequiel Schelotto, who have all become integral to Stefano Colantuono's team. The coup of the summer was perhaps the acquisition of Vélez Sársfield's Maxi Moralez, a player expected to move to a much more high profile club yet it was Atalanta who paid 8M € for 50% of his playing rights.
Even more surprising is the form of striker Germán Denis, often a target for much derision before his summer loan move to Bergamo. Here is a player sent back to Argentina by his first Italian club, Cesena, for scoring just three goals in two seasons while piling on weight at an alarming rate. He has similarly disappointed fans of Napoli and Udinese and prior to this season his best return in European football was scoring eight goals in 34 games three seasons ago. Yet this term the Argentine sits alone atop the Capocannoniere charts, one goal ahead of former team-mate Antonio Di Natale - who has had almost twice as many shots - with ten in just thirteen starts.
Colantuono has them playing a very functional 4-4-2 system, in which the speed and penetration of winger Schelotto - and the much less heralded but no less effective Giacomo Bonaventura - are a great weapon in a league largely devoid of attacking width. In addition the combination of Moralez and Cigarini has become a superb blend in central midfield, with the Italian in particular finally living up to the hype which surrounded him from a young age when he emerged at Parma.
Were it not for the points they were deducted in the summer, Atalanta would be sitting in fifth place, putting them above much more high profile sides such as Roma (one of only two sides to beat them this season) and Napoli. Even with the penalty they are higher placed than Genoa and Inter, surely a dream start for any other newly promoted side? Perhaps the best they can hope for is to avoid the drop but, should their current form continue, they most certainly can hold their heads up high.