FFT.com's man in Italy, Richard Whittle, reports on a bad weekend for Rafa Benitez's men, and the end of an admirable run for a European chaser...
It's been a long week for Napoli. This time last week they were being hailed for humbling Juventus, but once again Rafa Benitez watched his side lack the belief to take a champion-like performance into the next game.
A 1-0 defeat at Parma has all but ended Partenopei hopes of catching Roma for second, meaning they remain in the no-man’s land of third place with a Champions League qualifier to look forward to. Benitez's men are 12 points off the Giallorossi and nine ahead of fourth-placed Fiorentina with six games to play.
At least Napoli have the Italian Cup final to look forward to, where they meet the Viola at the start of May. It could be much worse too; the teams chasing the other European places have been stumbling over each other attempting to qualify for the Europa League. Three weeks ago it looked as if Inter would catch Fiorentina for fourth, but after a 2-1 win at Hellas Verona, Walter Mazzarri has overseen no victories in four, including draws with strugglers Udinese, Livorno and Bologna, where Diego Milito missed a penalty late in front of an exasperated San Siro crowd on Saturday.
Along the way there was a home defeat to Atalanta, who have flown the flag for beleaguered clubs of the Lombardy region which has previously enjoyed more success than any other in Italy. This season, however, has seen Milan go from the Champions League to mid-table, while Brescia have been struggling in the lower half of Serie B. Last weekend the side from Bergamo made it six wins in a row with a 2-0 victory at Bologna, and broke their record of consecutive victories in Serie A set back in 1991. Then, the Orobici had Claudio Cannigia and Glenn Peter Stromberg in a team that would reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, where they went out to Inter.
Hopes were high that Atalanta would make it the magnificent seven and equal their club record of eight set in 1928 before Serie A was founded, and then again in Serie B in 1994/95, when they entertained second-bottom Sassuolo at their fortress Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, where they had lost just four times all year. Three points would have taken Stefano Colantuono’s side to within a point of the magic half century which they last achieved in 2007, and more importantly into sixth place, the final spot for Europe given that the Italian Cup finalists have freed up an extra spot in the league.
The build-up to the game had matched the enthusiasm of the team’s performances, with over a thousand fans following the final training session and over 20,000 Bergamaschi filling the stands on a searing-hot Sunday afternoon.
But the Dea got cold feet and crumpled to a 2-0 defeat, which may have silenced their mantra of “it costs nothing to dream” where European qualification is concerned. Sassuolo were playing for their own future in the top flight, but having only won once away from home all season, Atalanta were expected to keep their winning streak intact.
The club has always worked within its means. Indeed, the total outlay of €1.6m for this year’s squad would not cover a player’s salary at one of the top clubs. However, Atalanta have always had a well-stocked academy, with current Milan stars Giampaolo Pazzini and Riccardo Montolivo having risen through the ranks. But it's one of their most recent graduates who has really been catching the eye: Giacomo Bonaventura. Now 24, the left-sided midfielder is pushing for a place in the Italy squad, if not for this summer’s World Cup then certainly for the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. Equally at home supporting the attack (he's Atalanta's joint-second goalscorer with Maxi Moralez on five goals) or helping out in defence, there have been reports of a big move in the summer.
Daniele Baselli is also set for a successful career in the centre of midfield, where the 22-year-old has recently displaced the more experienced Luca Cigarini, once touted as the next great thing when he joined Napoli a few seasons back. Waiting in the wings is 18-year-old midfielder Mario Pugliese, who has represented Italy at all levels through to U19 and made his club debut in the Italian Cup this season.
But despite all Atalanta's work to unearth new talent, it is well-travelled boss Colantuono who deserves special praise. The 51-year-old Roman is back in his second spell in charge, having returned in 2010 after an unhappy period at Palermo. He has built the team around a group of gnarly old pros like central defenders Mario Yepes and Guglielmo Stendardo, along with captain and chief goalscorer German Denis, who has been living up to his nickname ‘The Tank’ by rolling over defences with 11 goals.
With frasquito (the little flask) Moralez laid up injured, Giuseppe de Luca has been buzzing around alongside Denis in attack. But it all went wrong when it mattered. Bonaventura, De Luca and Marcelo Estigarribia all missed golden opportunities, and when the visitors scored through Nicola Sansone just after the half-hour mark, there was a creeping sensation that it was not going to be a day of celebration after all.
Colantuono introduced young Uruguayan Ruben Bentancourt for his debut on the hour, and the former PSV Eindhoven star added a bit more height in attack where Denis was having a rare off day. But Sansone’s free-kick with 20 minutes remaining, his second goal of the game, finally took the wind out of Atalanta’s sails.
With Lazio having already beaten Sampdoria in the early afternoon game, Atalanta had slipped two points behind the Romans, and then after Parma’s success later in the evening, four points off Europe. The run-in does Atalanta few favours, with a trip to Roma next week followed by a home match against Hellas Verona. Juventus and Milan are also coming up.
But as the fans headed home they could not feel too dejected; it's been a season that has already exceeded expectations, and could yet end with a dream finish.