Ilicic puts Atalanta in title chase and leaves Milan ‘winter champions’ behind | series A
Tthere are no medals for the Serie A “Winter Champions”. Each year, this title is imposed on the team that tops the standings at mid-season, and each year, the players and the manager emphasize that it doesn’t mean much. It has become less of a celebration than a custom: a moment to reflect on the previous months and consider where the race for the title is.
Some years, however, the ritual seems particularly absurd. On Saturday Milan became winter champions the same day they were beaten 3-0 by Atalanta – clinging to first place only because Inter also drew with Udinese. “It doesn’t give me anything,” growled Zlatan Ibrahimovic when the subject was brought up in a post-match interview.
There are many reasons to admire Milan’s achievement. They have been leading the entire season, far exceeding expectations for the youngest team in the division. the Rossoneri are 18 points better than they were at the corresponding point last year and seven ahead of defending champions Juventus. Saturday’s loss was only the second they have suffered in Serie A since Italy emerged from its first coronavirus lockdown in the spring.
These are a solid foundation for a Scudetto push. Since Serie A adopted three points for a win, 19 of the 26 winter champions have achieved the real victory.
This weekend, however, they were eclipsed. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they were completely eclipsed. Watching the action unfold in San Siro on Saturday it sometimes felt like 21 other players were obscured by the magnificence of Josip Ilicic.
Every time the Atalante attacked, there was the Slovenian: beat his man, find space, orchestrate. He played a central role in the opening goal, receiving a short corner and handing the ball over to Robin Gosens, who picked Cristian Romero at the far post. Ilicic scored the second from the penalty spot after committing the foul himself. His quick feet in a crowded midfield kicked off the attack which ended with the third party being buried by Duván Zapata.
Sometimes he even seemed to get lost in his own talent of faking the ball and losing control at a time when a shot for the first time seemed the most obvious choice. “I have to get better with things like this,” Ilicic mused full-time. “Sometimes something comes to my mind at the last second and I do.”
What a pleasure to watch him, however, when those hunches come up. What a treat, indeed, to see him on the ground at all. Ilicic moved away from football over the summer, leaving Bergamo and returning to Slovenia even as his side contested for top honors on multiple fronts in the delayed and crowded conclusion of the 2019-20 campaign.
Outgoing Atalanta club captain Papu Gómez would later say his teammate “had the Covid and suffered a lot, falling into depression”. Ilicic didn’t use such explicit terms to describe his own experience, but after returning to action in October, he acknowledged part of his struggle.
“I felt Covid on my skin,” he said. “It’s not good to live like that, in this situation, especially for those [others] who work 24 hours a day. I hope with all my heart that all this will pass and we can get back to life. “
He cited his love of football, as well as the support of his family, as something that allowed him to “find a way through it all”. There were echoes of that feeling again after being full time on Saturday, when he said, “I feel like a happy man because I do everything I love.”
Gian Piero Gasperini can only be delighted too. The Atalanta coach took a bold gamble in excluding Gómez from the squad late last year – ending the tenure of one of the club’s most beloved and brilliant players, who contributed 16 league-leading assists last year. His team have missed almost nothing, remaining unbeaten for 13 games in all competitions since the beginning of December.
This is not all for Ilicic. Gasperini replaced Gómez – who should join Sevilla soon – with Matteo Pessina in the role of No.10: a less gifted and creative talent but whose physique lends itself to the extremely aggressive press that the team adopted in recent years. matches.
At the other end of the pitch, Cristian Romero – on loan from Juventus this summer, but with an option to buy – has also become a game-changing figure. Aggressively coming out of the midfield of Genoa’s three full-backs, he intercepted more passes than any other Serie A player, capitalizing on the errant distribution caused by the harassment of his teammates higher up the pitch.
He dominated the spaces Ibrahimovic hoped to occupy on Saturday – leaving the Swede to complain about being abandoned by his own teammates. Mistakes were made in the selection of the Milan squad, with the brand new Soualiho Meité appearing to be lost in 10th place, although this again testifies to the pressure from the visitors and the refusal to give him time to settle down .
The victory saw Atalanta move up to fourth with Juventus, despite having played one more game. Their 36 points are a club record for the midpoint of a Serie A campaign. They too are in that title race, despite Gasperini’s protest afterwards that “you won’t put the word ‘Scudetto on me. ‘ in the mouth.”
He won’t be able to stop the others from saying it, if Ilicic continues like this. It was at this same stadium a year ago that he inspired Atalanta to their spellbinding 4-1 victory over Valencia, before scoring four more goals on his own away from home.
“I thought about it a few minutes after the game started tonight,” Ilicic said on Saturday. “I was thinking how many people were at San Siro that night, how much we miss our audience, the fans. It’s more beautiful to play with them, we have more fun.
The feeling is undoubtedly mutual. Atalanta looked like they were having enough fun on Saturday, however, as they buried the winter champions under a flurry of goals.