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Serie A - Football: Atalanta losing out in top-four race

Atalanta, the queen of the provincial clubs, have been punching above her weight and winning admirers for the past few years, but a sudden downturn in form could prove costly in their quest for another Champions League campaign.

It was all going so well for La Dea, the smalltown club from Lombardy who have become such a big noise in the modern Serie A story and who are 8/1 to win the Europa League this season.

A stunning autumn, featuring away wins over Juventus and Napoli, had seen Gian Piero Gasperini's men take their by now customary place in the top handful of places in the table, and they went into their make-or-break final Champions League group game at home to Villarreal with spirits high.

This was, after all, their third straight campaign in Europe's top competition and having reached the knockout stage of the previous two, they would have been enormously confident of marching into the latter stages once again.

Villarreal start the slide

However, so too were Villarreal. The Spanish side won 3-2, Atalanta were stunned and deposited into the Europa League, and since then the wheels have, if not come off, certainly been loosened.

They welcome Sampdoria to Bergamo on Monday night in need of a timely win to resurrect top-four aspirations and it's a match that can be watched as part of our European Soccer Live Streaming Highlights.

Atalanta haven't won at home in the league since the end of November, but are rated 9/20 shots against a Samp side who, despite nosediving into the bottom half, have stopped the bleeding with two wins in their last three.

Samp get an 11/2 quote, with the draw at 15/4.

Hard work pays off for Gasperini

They made Gian Piero Gasperini an honorary citizen of Bergamo in 2019 and it's easy to understand why.

Arriving in the city in 2016 with a mixed CV featuring successes at the likes of Crotone and Genoa, but abject failures at Inter Milan and Palermo, there was no great fanfare.

And a few games into his debut campaign he was immediately under pressure before the transformation, which was as unexpected as it was swift.

He chucked in a load of youngsters against Napoli, a gamble that could easily have backfired, presided over a shock 1-0 win and the rest, as they say, is history.

That season, Atalanta would lose just one of their last 18 to pip Lazio for fourth spot and qualify for Europe for the first time in 27 years.

The following season, the renowned taskmaster and workaholic drove his side to a seventh-placed finish and then, in 2018-19, it all clicked.

By now enjoying a reputation as an entertaining side to watch, 2018-19 was a season in which they would reach the Coppa Italia final, top the scoring charts with 77 and fend off the Milan giants for third place, booking them a shot at the Champions League for the first time.

And it got better a season later when Atalanta racked up an incredible 98 goals - they hit seven in a game three times and battered Milan 5-0 - and had become not just a joy to watch, not merely cabaret artistes, but were now a threat to the established order, even reaching the last eight of the Champions League.

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Gasperini sticks to his guns

Last year Gasperini, who has rarely deviated from his high-energy 3-4-3 formation and never stopped demanding more from his players, guided La Dea to a third successive third-placed finish, the final of the Coppa and the round of 16 of the Champions League where Real Madrid were too strong for them.

This season the consistency was there once again from this unheralded group of players, a squad short of superstars, but high on group spirit, organisation and attacking intent.

Key figures include centre-backs Berat Djimsiti and Merih Derimal, Swiss grafter Remo Freuler, one-time Chelsea misfit Davide Zappacosta, while Duvan Zapata is one of a clutch of forwards with an eye for goal and impressive stats.

And they started the season well, losing just two of their first 17 Serie A matches, form that wasn't however mirrored in the Champions League which they exited at the group stage with a solitary win to their name.

They shrugged that setback off straight away, just days after losing their last group game to Villarreal coming from behind to win 2-1 at Verona in mid-December to go third in the table.

Since then, however, it's been a struggle. One win in eight in Serie A and beaten by Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia, they go into the showdown with Samp outside of the top four and trying to stay in touch.

Injuries bite, but funding close at hand

Injuries have hurt them - top scorer Zapata might be out for the season - and the goals have dried up, just two in their last five in the league, almost unthinkable from this effervescent attacking force.

On the plus side, they have ticked off all four games versus Inter and Juventus and home and away wins over Olympiakos in the Europa League will have given them a huge boost going into this critical tussle with Marco Giampaolo's Samp.

And going forward, they've got new investors, with a group headed by Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca having just agreed to buy a 55 per cent stake in this famously well-run club.

The fact is, Atalanta expects now. It expects to be in and around the top four because Gasperini has set an incredibly high bar at a club which has never had it quite this good.

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