By virtue of their victory over Torino last weekend, combined with Lazio falling to Napoli (praise be), Roma finally laid claim to fourth place in Serie A...for a few hours. The Giallorossi's brief perch upon that mantle was interrupted when Milan blanked Genoa on Monday evening. Nevertheless, Roma's run of form speaks volumes about Eusebio Di Francesco's turnaround from the fall, but it's still...*checks calendar*... January, so we're a long way from celebrating next season's Champions League. Despite the club's current three match winning streak, the gumbo that is fourth through ninth place on the league table is thick and hearty, with only six points separating those two positions.
With Roma an inch away from fourth, the challenge now, in addition to overtaking Milan, is simply to remain ahead of the three clubs currently nipping at their heels: Lazio, Sampdoria, and the Goddesses of Atalanta, the subject of today's piece.
Led by Papu Gomez and the suddenly resurgent Duvan Zapata, Giampiero Gasperini has transformed Atalanta into one of the league's most complete sides, all while operating with one of it's smallest budgets.
Atalanta have had a knack for hanging around the top half of the table in the past few seasons, but the current version of La Dea seem poised to do more than just remain in the conversation, so let's take a closer look.
Position: Sixth Place (31 pts)
Form: 13 points in their last six matches
Goal Differential: +17
There may be no finer football factory on the Italian Peninsula than Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio at the moment. From our very own Bryan Cristante to Roberto Gagliardini to Josip Ilicic to Franck Kessie to Giacomo Bonaventura to today's wünderkind, Gianluca Mancini, Atalanta has developed and/or played host to a bevy of talented players over the past several seasons. It's a prodigious pipeline that was, as recently as 2014, rated the eighth best youth system in the world according to CIES Football Observatory.
However, rather than relying solely on youth, Atalanta has rounded out their squad with some capable vets and castoffs looking for a second chance. If one looks at their top rotation pieces, one sees names like Roma reject Rafael Toloi (he was good, I just like alliteration), former Middlesbrough midfielder Marten de Roon, Josip Ilicic (who started with Atalanta then returned after several seasons with Fiorentina), and Duvan Zapata (who featured for Napoli, Udinese and Sampdoria).
They may be short on star power, but under Gasperini's tutelage this assortment of talent has become one of the league's most balanced sides. While their defense isn't exactly water tight, their 44 goals scored are tops in the league and good enough to maintain a +17 goal differential.
What's more, they've got an intriguing mix of scoring options at the moment. While Zupata has been a man reborn this season scoring 14 goals, tied for the league lead, Gomez, Ilicic, and the soon-to-be-maybe-we-hope Roma player Mancini each have more than five league goals thus far. To put that in perspective, Juventus, the second highest scoring team in the league, only have two players on their entire roster with more than five goals, Ronaldo and Mandzukic.
Wrap it all up and you have a pretty potent and wide spread attack, one that Roma's backline might have a tough time corralling, and certainly one potent enough to power Atalanta back into Europe.
Fourth Place Fear Factor: 7/10
Zupata has been perhaps the surprise of the season, but that spread of attacking and scoring options should scare any side in the league, let alone one as susceptible to conceding as Roma. But...and this is a slim one...Atalanta are (somewhat) punching above their weight class, as they've exceeded their expected goals by nearly five, perhaps indicating a backslide is due.
Backslide to backside. As strong as Atalanta's attack has been, the backside of their squad, the defense, hasn't been quite as sterling. With 27 goals conceded, the Goddesses are the eighth leakiest side in Serie A, and have conceded three or more goals on three occasions, the sixth highest amount in the league. Furthermore, Atalanta have been most susceptible in the opening and closing 15 minutes of matches, surrendering six goals in the opening quarter hour and an astounding nine goals in the matches final 15 minutes.
All of which is to say, Atalanta sort of lives by the sword and dies by the sword, and as luck would have it, they're Roma's next opponent.
So, in this fight for fourth place, there is no rest for the weary.