Atalanta star back on pitch

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Last week, the curious case of Josip Iličić took a positive turn. The 6-foot-3 Slovenian striker started for Atalanta, a good sign relative to his mysterious previous months, at Liverpool in a Champions League Group D match.

What’s more, he found the back of the net. Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp answered with wholesale changes, but Atalanta deflected all pressure and added another to seal it, 2-0.

For the first time in 137 matches under Klopp, Liverpool had dropped a game by more than one goal. And for the first time since 2003, when the statistic began being recorded, Liverpool failed to muster a single shot on target in Champions League competition.

Enough about Liverpool.

This is about a club that has won only one trophy, the Coppa Italia, on June 2, 1963. Even then darkness was close, as Bergamo native Pope John XXIII died the following day.

Bergamo, home of Atalanta, has a population of 120,000 in Northern Italy. For the past 10 years, club president Antonio Percassi has gifted every baby born in the local hospital with a team jersey to sear the club’s black-and-blue vertical stripes on their consciences.

Last season, Iličić (at 1.08) was one of 17 players in the Big Five (Italy, England, Spain, Germany and France) to register a goals-plus-assists rate per 90 minutes north of one, led by Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (1.44).

Iličić had been featuring very well in coach Gian Piero Gasperini’s exciting attacking schemes.

On Feb. 19, in a Champions League round-of-16 first leg at the San Siro in Milan, a 25-minute drive to the southwest, Atalanta beat Valencia, 4-1. Forty thousand Atalanta fans traveled to see the biggest match in the club’s 112-year existence. La Dea (The Goddess) inspired dreams of lifting the trophy with big ears.

Then came the nightmare. It’s possible that no place has been more affected by the coronavirus than Bergamo. Local morgues were overwhelmed. Military trucks carried coffins out of the city

Two weeks later — and two days after Bergamo had been locked down — in the return leg at Valencia, Atalanta won, 4-3. Iličić scored all four in an empty Estadio de Mestalla.

Atalanta returned to the pitch on June 21. Iličić did not play. He came off the bench for its next three, started twice and missed the club’s final seven matches. That last one was a 2-1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in a Champions League quarterfinal in Portugal.

Iličić had vanished. Rumors flew. The constant news of corpses and death had triggered horrible memories of his embattled youth in Slovenia, was one theory. Another had him finding wife Tina Polovina at home with another man. He posted a photo of the couple, and their two young children, on social media, maybe to prove they were fine.

Last month, Atalanta captain Papu Gómez, the versatile Argentine, told TyC Sports in Buenos Aires that Iličić had caught the virus and became depressed. “He suffered much,” said Gómez, who added that the striker “is important for us.”

Iličić has said nothing. This season, he has started nine of 11 matches, dishing out one assist and converting a penalty kick. His score against Liverpool represented his first true goal in 15 matches since his fireworks at Valencia.

To conquer Europe, Atalanta needs him to flourish, to attract attention, to free space for midfielders Gómez and Mario Pašalić, strikers Duván Zapata and Luis Muriel. This club is full of danger men, and its advancement out of Group D will be determined Dec. 9 at Ajax Amsterdam. What’s certain is that a side winning at Liverpool, with Josip Iličić at full strength, can beat anyone, anywhere.

Saturday

Real Valladolid at Atlético Madrid, Total 2.5 -148: Madrid keeper Jan Oblak sports a 93.5% save rate and 0.22 goals-against average, both tops in the B5, with five consecutive clean sheets. UNDER

Sunday

Napoli -1.5 +104 at Crotone: This is only the third Serie A season in Crotone’s history, and it shows; Gli Squali Calabrese (the Sharks of Calabria) are 0-7-2, have a league-low six goals and have been goose-egged in their past three matches. And here comes Europe’s most-aggressive side. NAPOLI

Leicester City +100 at Sheffield United: Sheffield has allowed a stunning 57 shots on target to foes, second-highest B5 total. In all competitions, Sheffield is 0-10-1. It has tallied only one goal in its past four matches. Leicester is 5-0-1, with a 12-4 goal differential, in its past six against Sheffield. LEICESTER CITY

Last week: 3-0

Season: 19-24-2 

About the Author

Rob Miech

Veteran sportswriter Rob Miech covers soccer and does features for Gaming Today. He has written about college hoops for the Las Vegas Sun, CBS SportsLine and the Pasadena Star-News. He is the author of four books, including Sports Betting for Winners.

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