The hottest soccer squad in Europe not named Bayern Munich is also the most dynamic, averaging nearly 20 shots a match. Nobody else among the Continent’s top flights possesses that rate of aggression.
Meet Atalanta of Italy’s Serie A, which is fashioning a season for the ages. At 17-5-6 with 57 points, nine ahead of AS Roma, it owns the fourth and final Serie A spot for next season’s Champions League.
It is one of four teams already in the quarterfinals of this season’s Champions League, having earned its maiden voyage in the world’s most prestigious club tournament via last season’s third-place league finish.
Only Munich, victorious in 16 consecutive matches, and 20-0-1 over its past 21, can boast of better current form than Atalanta, which is 10-0-1 over an 11-game stretch in which it has averaged four goals.
Atalanta’s trophy cabinet contains only a lonesome Coppa Italia from 1963. Team president Antonio Percassi often awakens wondering if this has all been a dream. He told Sky Sport Italia, “It doesn’t seem real.”
In its 3-2 victory at Udinese on Sunday, its 13 shot attempts shaved Atalanta’s season average below 20, to 19.8. That still tops Europe’s five élite leagues. At home, Atalanta averages an astounding 21.3 shots on goal.
Thursday, inside its Gewiss Stadium in Bergamo, it plays Napoli, which averages 18.3 shots and is 9-1-3 over its past 13 matches. Only Manchester City (with 19.1 a match) separates Atalanta and Napoli atop the Euro shots chart.
Expect fireworks inside Gewiss, where South Point oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo projects an opening-line goals total of 3.
We will adopt South Point’s two-way side lines because typical three-way numbers (pick either side to win, or draw) are a recipe for financial disaster and blood-pressure spikes. South Point results are graded after 90 minutes plus stoppage time.
Grazie mille a Magliulo, whose roots are all over Naples, for lending his expertise and experience to this column.
Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and Munich are whales that still have Champions League Round-of-16 second legs to complete Aug. 7.
Compared to that company, Atalanta is a mere minnow, its small fishbowl having forced its Sweet 16 home CL match against Valencia to be staged 20 miles to the southwest inside the mammoth San Siro in Milan.
That was a 4-1 victory for Atalanta. In the return leg at Valencia, 32-year-old ace Josip Ilicic tallied every Atalanta goal in a 4-3 victory to secure passage to the quarters.
Ilicic has 21 goals and five assists in 31 competitions this season, a stirring rebuttal to critics who called him a miserable moaner at Fiorentina. “La Nonna” — the grandmother— was another moniker, for his endless complaints.
His current teammates call him “Il Professore,” and he calls himself the Prince of Slovenia. Since Serie A resumed, an ankle tweak has limited him to late appearances in two of three matches.
However, with 10 goals from Ilicic’s teammates in those three victories, Atalanta has not suffered in his absence. Colombians Duván Zapata and Luis Muriel concoct nightmares for opposing keepers — fellow countryman David Ospina will likely mind the Napoli net. Argentine midfielder Alejandro Gómez is Atalanta’s set-up wizard, and German midfielder Robin Gosens is a defensive pest who also sneaks into offensive frays.
The mad scientist is coach Gian Piero Gasperini, whose spectacular, hyper-offensive, high-risk and high-reward tactics make Atalanta such a treat to watch.
Napoli, in sixth place, has scored five times in its past two matches, and Atalanta’s ferocious poaching attempts up front should lead to Napoli successes at the other end. Atalanta and Napoli have combined for 18 goals in their past six meetings.
This has all the ingredients for a torrent of goals. It might be covered by halftime. Sit back, enjoy an ice-cold beverage and prepare to be entertained. OVER
Chelsea at West Ham, Total 3, Under -140: Since its season resumed, West Ham has played 186 minutes without scoring in defeats to Wolves and Tottenham. That streak actually stretches to 314 minutes.
The Hammers, mired in the relegation danger zone, have also produced only two total goals the last three times it has played host to Chelsea, who are clinging to the fourth and final Champions League spot in the Premiership.
WhoScored.com rates Chelsea as the seventh-best road team in Europe. However, it appears boss Frank Lampard will rest American star striker Christian Pulisic, who sustained a calf injury and was removed from Sunday’s match at Leicester. UNDER