When an annual Ruslan Malinovskyi missile breached Wojciech Szczesny’s defences, Atalanta seemed destined to regain the advantage over Juventus in Serie A’s top-four race.
Against a side that have rarely been forced to come from behind since Duvan Zapata helped La Dea to all three points over the Bianconeri back in November, Malinovskyi’s wondergoal initially appeared decisive. But Juventus proved that they’re made of sterner stuff and in stoppage time, an unlikely saviour emerged in the form of Danilo, who headed home Paulo Dybala’s corner to snatch the Old Lady a crucial point.
The Brazilian’s late leveller perpetuated the momentum built up by the Bianconeri since the end of 2021 while simultaneously dealing a huge psychological blow to an already faltering Atalanta. Severely hampered by the absence of Zapata, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side were winless in three heading into the clash with Juve and they’ve since won just one in four. Defeats against European hopefuls Fiorentina and AS Roma were indicative of their sudden demise.
Gasperini’s Atalanta were once the continent’s supreme entertainers, but injuries have rendered their current side to be a watered-down iteration of the scintillating predecessor that reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2020.
On Sunday, they were held to a stalemate by draw specialists Genoa to leave them eight points adrift of fourth-placed Juve in the Serie A table. If Lazio beat Venezia in Rome on Monday night, Atalanta will fall to sixth and Maurizio Sarri’s Biancocolesti will come forth as the Old Lady’s closest challengers for the final Champions League spot.
Even if Lazio grab an expected win, however, the margin between themselves and Juve will be a healthy seven points. Since the Atalanta draw, Juve have made the most of a favourable schedule to extend their unbeaten run in Serie A to 15 games; a streak that began after their defeat to La Dea in November.
How they’ve been able to perpetuate such a streak is remarkable. Massimiliano Allegri has returned vintage Bianconeri principles to Turin, and while such ideals make hipsters weep, their recent efficacy can’t be disputed. The players have bought into the manager’s pragmatism and this galvanised group are rolling.
So that begs the question: is the top-four race in Serie A already over?
When Danilo thumped home the equaliser in Bergamo, many projected the top-four race to be fought down to the wire. To mitigate against Zapata’s long-term injury, Atalanta signed Jeremie Boga and the former Sassuolo entertainer showed against Juve that he could lead La Dea’s top-four bid.
But that hasn’t been the case and Atalanta have since fallen further and further behind. This writer is backing Juve to falter soon, but they also thought Sampdoria would cause an upset on Saturday. Instead, Allegri’s plucky Bianconeri sauntered to a 3-1 victory and their next domestic outing comes against the league’s poorest outfit: Salernitana. Thus, Juve’s impressive domestic run is set to continue for another week and by the time they face Inter Milan at the Allianz Stadium in two matchdays time, many will be billing the contest as significant in the Scudetto race.
The majority are placing Juve, the tyrannical ruler over calcio during the 2010s, in the title race and while I’ve been sceptical to agree, a seven-point margin to the far from invincible leaders AC Milan isn’t exactly insurmountable.
However, if you’re ready to put the Bianconeri in the fight for the Scudetto despite a seven-point deficit, then how can the top-four race be over? While their recent form is a major concern, Atalanta could cut the gap between themselves and the Bianconeri to five points if they win their game in hand against Torino.
Nevertheless, while the race is just about alive, Juventus are the overwhelming favourites to claim the final Champions League spot – and potentially more. Their current advantage over La Dea is one that absolutely no one predicted at the closure of the January transfer window when the two sides were neck and neck.
Juve’s massive financial gamble to buy Fiorentina hitman Dusan Vlahovic has already paid off, barely a month into the long-term investment.