Everton kick off their return to the Europa League proper with a trip to Italy, to take on last season’s fourth place Serie A team, Atalanta. Managed by former Juventus youth and Inter Milan head coach Gian Piero Gasperini, Atalanta reached their record high league position last year, finishing just below the big three of Juventus, Napoli and Roma.
This season, La Dea are one from three, losing their first two league games to Roma and Napoli, before beating Sassuolo 2-1 last weekend. Hosting their “home” European game at the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia, the club return to the Europa League for the first time since the 1990/91 season, where they lost in the quarter finals to Inter.
Several key players from last season have departed Bergamo in this close season, with both Andrea Conti and Franck Kessié joining AC Milan, and pivotal midfielder Roberto Gagliardini joining Inter in January. The club have recruited a number of players though; most notably Ludogorets’ José Luis Palomino, Fiorentina’s Josip Iličić, Middlesbrough’s Marten de Roon and the permanent signing of former loanee Etrit Berisha from Lazio.
To get an inside view on all matters Atalanta, I spoke to Italian football writer and author of ‘Juventus: A History In Black & White’, Adam Digby.
Atalanta enjoyed their most successful league season ever last year, but have lost some key names in Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Conti and Franck Kessié. Have they replaced them well or is this Atalanta side just not the one it was from last season?
This is a tough one, largely because Atalanta often replace their lost players through their youth sector, meaning that the new faces are ones we don’t know this early in a season. That would’ve been true for Gagliardini and Kessié at this time last year, while Swiss midfielder Remo Freuler stepped up well after the first of those two moved on in January. However, a couple of players seem to be making a good impression, with 21-year-old Belgian right-back Timothy Castagne looking sharp on his debut against Sassuolo at the weekend.
The club have signed a host of new players. Are there any areas though that you feel they are still lacking in?
They’re not as strong as they were in central midfield, which is only to be expected after seeing Gagliardini-Kessié blossom last term. Otherwise, they seem to be growing as a unit despite those aforementioned high profile departures.
Atalanta have won just once this season from three league games, however the two losses came at the hands of very tough opposition. Have the performances been there for the club this season?
Their first two games – before the international break – were always going to be difficult after so many new signings this summer, but there’s not really any shame in losing to Roma and Napoli is there? Atalanta looked good against the latter but Maurizio Sarri’s men were determined to escape with all three points after losing twice to the Bergamaschi last term. They did much better last weekend in beating Sassuolo, a match which was a much more honest reflection of their overall quality and of how much work they did over the last two weeks.
Last season saw the club finish in a record high 4th place in Serie A. Was this due to excellent tactical management, high performance levels from the players, or a merging of both?
Both. Gian Piero Gasperini finally found a club that reflects his ethos of promoting young players and playing with an intent to attack as much as possible. The Coach – who was in charge of the Juve Under-21s when Claudio Marchisio and Sebastian Giovinco were there – was obviously blessed to arrive when such a group was coming through, but he still had to throw them in when many others would not have. Especially in Italy where they’re always slow to turn to promising young talent.
Evertonians were made quickly aware following the Europa draw that, due to Atalanta’s ground not meeting UEFA standards, the game would be played at the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia, over 100 miles away from Bergamo. Do you think this will unsettle the “home” side?
Odd that they played Sassuolo in Bergamo this weekend then have to play a “home game” at the Neroverdi’s stadium on Thursday isn’t it? That aside, its bound to have some effect when moving away from the comforts of your normal place. Atalanta have done well in organising where their season ticket holders will be located at the MAPEI while they’re also arranging transport for them to get there.
Manager Gian Piero Gasperini has been around the block a fair bit. How does he like to set his side up, and what are their strengths?
He has! He’s always championed a 3-4-3 formation and that is likely to continue, although really Papu Gómez and Josip Iličić will play deeper than striker Andrea Petagna. The latter is an old-fashioned bruising No.9 that Everton will have to be ready for, and is one of a number of players the Bergamaschi look to at set pieces, which is an area where this team thrives.
They’ll look to counter quickly and are dangerous in wide areas, while they make more crosses than Italian teams usually do. Before that, they tend to sit deep, tight and well organised, sacrificing for each other and working to make the system work.
Who will Everton have to be most wary of?
Papu Gómez is undoubtedly the leader of this side. The captain thrives in an attacking role primarily on the left flank but does move around and find gaps to exploit, Atalanta’s play always flowing through him. He’s their main creative outlet, is excellent at taking on and beating defenders, while his delivery at set pieces – both crossing and direct shots – is lethal.
How do you think La Dea will line-up against the Toffees?
Undoubtedly in that 3-4-3 shape. Probably will see the following XI: Berisha; Tolói, Caldara, Masiello; Castagne, Freuler, De Roon, Gosens; Iličić, Petagna, Gómez.
Finally, your prediction for the game?
Though I HATE making predictions, a 2-2 draw would be my best guess!
Follow Adam on Twitter at @Adz77.