x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Asterisk is galling for Atalanta

Serie A side start 2011/12 season with six-point deduction after former captain, Christian Doni, is alleged to have been involved in match-fixing.

Atalanta’s Argentine 30-year-old forward, German Denis, is the leading scorer in the Serie A.
Atalanta’s Argentine 30-year-old forward, German Denis, is the leading scorer in the Serie A.

MILAN // Scan through the Serie A table, and the name Atalanta stands out.

The Bergamo club, celebrated for their productive youth development system, and admired for their tradition of attractive football, are obliged to live with a new fame this season. On their return to Serie A last summer, they picked up an unwanted addition to their reputation. In the league table they effectively have a new name: Atalanta*.

The asterisk is there to explain why, despite being second only to unbeaten Juventus in fewest defeats this season, despite having collected as many victories as Napoli, they occupy 14th place ahead of the weekend's meeting with Cagliari. The asterisk is a denotation that Atalanta began the campaign with a six-point deduction, imposed because of the alleged involvement of the former club captain, Christian Doni, in an illegal betting enterprise suspected of attempted match-fixing.

Doni was in front a tribunal earlier this month, again protesting his innocence, and did so successfully enough that the Italian sports court will hear his appeal against a 40-month ban at the end of January. Atalanta also hold out a hope their penalty may be reduced. Were they not carrying that asterisk, they would be entering match day 14 in fifth spot in Serie A.

For any newly-promoted side, that would be quite an accomplishment, albeit that Atalanta are hardly novices in Italy's top-flight. Some celebrated players have worn their blue-and-black stripes, some excellent contemporary stars like Italy's Riccardo Montolivo and Giampaolo Pazzini, and AC Milan's Pippo Inzaghi ,graduated from their youth ranks and the club have spent much of more their history in Serie A than in the lower divisions.

In spite of the asterisk, they have always been a club mostly liked by outsiders: Bergamo is a charming place to visit, for a start.

But it's become a hard place for visitors to win this season. None have done it in Serie A. Stefano Colantuonno's team have imported the solidity that took them to the top of Serie B by last May into calcio's upper tier and added the likes of the worldly defender Stefano Lucchini to notable effect.

They still catch the eye of scouts, too, and indeed of the coaches planning the Azzurri's future. Roberto Baggio, the former Italy great, who now works with the Federation's development arm, was in Bergamo last week to watch Atalanta practice.

Manolo Gabbiadini, the young striker Manolo Gabbiadini, though still largely an impact substitute for his club, has been exciting for the Italy under-21s; Ezequiel Matias Schelotto, born in Argentina, was given his first under-21 caps two years ago, and spent last season on loan at Cesena. On his return to Bergamo, Schelotto's form on the wing has been lively.

As important has been the contribution of a Serie A veteran: German Denis, alternatively known as The Tank. The former Napoli target man is Serie A's leading scorer so far this season with 10 goals. Denis, 30, spent last season on loan at Udinese and, knowing Doni would be absent, Atalanta signed him late in the transfer window. He has scarcely looked back. "It's been great to get so much playing time," Denis said, "and be served by creative players around me."

Denis acknowledges that at Napoli, prospects were limited by the difficulty of penetrating the front three of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik. He feels he is in the prime of a career that eight years ago featured a disappointing spell at Cesena in the third-tier after which he returned to Argentina.

He has recently been called into the national squad, alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, the kinds of names you expect to see leading the goal-scoring charts of big European leagues. To see Denis as Serie A's current hotshot is a little more surprising.