Their hopes of European football dangling by the thinnest of threads, Atalanta BC aim to end a difficult season in style, as they host mid-table Empoli on Saturday evening.
Having endured a tough time at their Bergamo headquarters this term, the hosts need points to challenge Fiorentina and Roma for a top-six finish, while their Tuscan visitors are glad to have secured Serie A survival despite an awful year to date.
Last week, the latest loss of a dismal run saw Atalanta beaten 2-0 by Lombardy rivals Milan, who are in hot pursuit of the Scudetto. Thanks to other results, though, La Dea remain in the mix to qualify for Europe heading into Serie A’s final round.
While Roma drew against relegated Venezia, before Fiorentina failed to nail down their top-six spot by slipping to a 4-1 defeat at Sampdoria, Gian Piero Gasperini’s team also faltered during the second half at San Siro, so all is set to be determined in the last 90 minutes of the season.
Sixth place qualifies for the Europa League, while seventh would be good enough for a Europa Conference League spot. If Roma were to finish seventh and then win the Conference League final against Feyenoord, however, eighth would actually suffice – and that is where Atalanta lie, due to their head-to-heads with the other contenders.
Rather than getting bogged down in such convoluted calculations, the Bergamaschi must surely seek victory on Saturday, which would represent just their fifth home success of a testing league campaign.
Though only champions-elect Milan, Napoli and Inter have picked up more points than Gasperini’s men from away matches this season, a meagre tally of 20 points from 18 previous outings at the Gewiss Stadium has long since ended hopes of a fourth consecutive Champions League qualification.
An exasperated Gasperini has bemoaned various factors for his side’s decline during the past few months – during which they also exited the Europa League at its quarter-final stage – but despite posting just two wins from their last 10 games, Atalanta start as favourites against a side suffering an even worse time in 2022.
Though they were beaten 4-1 by Saturday’s hosts in October’s reverse fixture, Empoli enjoyed an excellent start to life back in the top flight following promotion as last year’s Serie B champions – at one point even flirting with the European places.
However, since the halfway stage, the Azzurri have slumped down the standings due to a dire run of form; winning just once in their last 21 matches following last week’s 1-1 draw at home to Salernitana.
Patrick Cutrone put the Tuscan club one goal up on the half-hour mark at Stadio Carlo Castellani, but their relegation-threatened rivals struck back after the break to deny them maximum points. Indeed, Empoli goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario was named ‘Man of the Match’ for making several sharp saves and keeping out a late penalty.
Before they travel to Bergamo for this week’s season finale, Empoli’s last away wins came in quick succession last December – their shock 1-0 victory at Napoli being followed soon after by a spectacular 4-3 Coppa Italia success versus Verona.
They have lost only seven of their 18 away fixtures this season, though, and have actually fared better on the road than at home. Sitting 14th, and safe from relegation – surely veteran coach Aurelio Andreazzoli’s main target this season – they now attempt to improve that record further against an ailing Atalanta side.
Atalanta BC Serie A form:
Empoli Serie A form:
We say: Atalanta BC 1-0 Empoli
With Atalanta’s ability to capitalise on home advantage still questionable, and their visitors having gone so long without away success, it may not be a fluent affair in front of some disgruntled Bergamaschi fans.
However, the hosts’ need for the points is far greater, and they can edge out Empoli due to the options available to Gasperini from the bench if the outcome remains undecided in the closing stages