It is 21 April 2013 on the Italian island of Sicily. Readying themselves for the Derby di Sicilia are the players of Catania and Palermo. As Paolo Mazzoleni blows his whistle to signal kick-off on this balmy spring day, it seems irrelevant that the referee was born in Bergamo. For two players whose appearance signals their last derby, however, this city will become the centre of their footballing universes.
With 20 minutes of the game remaining and score locked at 0-0, the diminutive figure of Alejandro “Papu” Gómez plays a delightful low ball into the box with the outside of his right foot. This is bundled home by Pablo Barrientos to hand Gli Elefanti the lead. Late drama, however, sees Palermo equalise in the 95th-minute through captain and talisman Josip Iličić, and the points shared in what to date remains the most recent meeting of the sides.
During the coming summer, several million tourists from across the world will visit Sicily, taking in the wonders of Mount Etna, Stromboli and the Valley of the Temples. By contrast, Gómez and Iličić will leave the island, unaware that some six years later, featuring their surnames in the same sentence will have become routine – the pair having become one of the most feared duos in Serie A, if not Europe.
The destinations stamped in Gómez and Iličić’s passports on their final departure from Catania-Fontanarossa Airport offered little insight into the trajectory of their careers. Fiorentina, fresh from finishing fourth under Vincenzo Montella, were the Slovene’s point of call. Meanwhile, Gómez took the rogue choice of moving to Metalist Kharkiv, joining Argentine compatriots Cristian Villagra, José Sosa and Sebastián Blanco in Ukraine.
Ironically for a man who stands just five-foot-six, Gómez’s transfer seemed to signify low ambition, with the Argentine reportedly turning down the likes of Atlético Madrid and Inter. Hailing from Buenos Aires, Gómez began his career at Arsenal de Sarandí, before moving to San Lorenzo in 2009. His form there caught the eye of Catania, who less than a year later paid €3m for his services.
Standing some 25cm taller, it is fitting how Iličić’s route to the top has been slightly more longwinded. Born in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, aged one he would move to Slovenia following the death of his father. After playing for several smaller clubs, his breakthrough would come at Interblock, with an impressive showing tempting domestic big hitters Maribor to sign him in summer 2010.
Iličić would stay there for just three months, with a starring performance in a Europa League qualifier against Palermo convincing i Rosanero to sign him the very next day. That both Iličić and Gómez would arrive in Serie A during the same summer is perhaps no accident. It is almost like it was meant to be.
Mirroring the parallels of their careers, both players found life difficult after leaving Sicily. During his three seasons in Florence, Iličić displays flashes of brilliance but was chastised for his inconsistency. Gómez’s solitary season in Ukraine proved a disaster: he failed to settle and ended up refusing to return following the outbreak of the Crimea crisis in 2014.
Neither story represents a fairytale; however this is what both players found at a club named after a mythical Greek huntress. Arriving at Atalanta some three seasons prior to Iličić, Gómez helped the side narrowly avoid relegation in 2015. A major part of their transformation came in June 2016, when Gian Piero Gasperini was appointed manager. Famed for his smart tactical mind and love of attacking football, the effect on Gómez was enormous. In 2016/17, he recorded double figures for both goals and assists as Atalanta finished in their highest ever position of fourth.
At this point, some 250km south in the city of Lilies, matters couldn’t have been more different for Iličić. Aged 29, a disappointing season that yielded just six goals in all competitions saw him on the verge of a move to Sampdoria. This is until Gasperini, his former boss at Palermo, stepped in. In an instant the Slovene’s head was turned, and for €5.7m Atalanta had their man.
Key to Iličić’s transformation into one of the world’s most underrated footballers is the faith of Gasperini. From the outset, he placed him alongside Gómez, tasked as free-roaming wingers in his fluid 3-4-3 system. The latter always possessed a fearless ability to run at defenders, using his especially low centre of gravity to his advantage. Meanwhile, Iličić is also no slouch on the ball, as his fine solo goal for Palermo against Sampdoria in April 2013 demonstrated.
It’s important to note that you can’t simplify Atalanta’s phenomenal rise from yo-yo club to European competitor as simply two mavericks and an astute tactician. One major aspect is the club’s famed youth system, which in recent seasons has given the likes of Franck Kessié, Leonardo Spinazzola and Mattia Caldara to the world. Also key is Gasperini’s knack of getting the very best from unspectacular players. Despite the many jewels Atalanta currently bedazzle with, Iličić and Gómez undoubtedly represent her two diamonds.
In their first season together, Atalanta finished seventh to rebook their Europa League ticket, also reaching the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia. Despite Juventus proving an insurmountable task, the 2-1 victory at Napoli in the previous round featured a wonderful solo goal from Gómez. Controlling a long ball from Gosens on his chest, he took another touch to leave Vlad Chiricheș in a pile and fire past Pepe Reina.
Atalanta would fail to qualify for the group stages of the Europa League after losing to FC Copenhagen, however there were far more pressing issues concerning Iličić. In the summer of 2018 he contracted lymphadenitis, an enlargement of the lymph nodes caused by a bacterial infection in the neck. The Slovenian spent two months in hospital fearing for his life; an especially daunting situation after the death of his former Fiorentina teammate Davide Astori the previous year.
Mercifully for Atalanta, Iličić managed to recover, and back alongside Gómez, Gasperini’s men set about climbing the table. By the end of the season they were gunning for a place in the Champions League, needing to beat Sassuolo to reach Europe’s top table for the first time in their 112-year existence. An early goal from Domenico Berardi looked to have spoiled the party, however. Step forward Papu Gómez, who put in a performance befitting of his role as captain.
First, his inswinging corner found Duván Zapata, who bundled over the line at the second attempt. Then, early in the second half, Gómez started a move on the edge of box, reacting first as Gianluca Pegolo parried Iličić’s shot to chip over the goalkeeper. To cap off the afternoon, he wriggled free from Francesco Magnanelli to float a beautifully weighted ball for Mario Pašalić to head home.
In circumstances few would have believed when Gómez arrived from Metalist, the Bergamo outfit finished third in Serie A, ahead of both Milanese and Roman clubs. A slight downer was put on the season as they lost in the Coppa final to Lazio, but nevertheless it had been a remarkable campaign. Little did they know it’s about to go up another gear.
Having spent years sleeping below, it took a moment for the goddess to acclimatise to her new surroundings. A 4-0 defeat in Croatia to a Mislav Oršić-inspired Dinamo represented a stark reality check, as did losses to Shakhtar and Manchester City. For all their endeavour and spirit, it appeared Atalanta had found their level.
Just like the Sassuolo match, however, they fought back. No team had ever progressed from the Champions League group stage after losing their opening three matches. Yet again, the competition seldom sees teams like Atalanta. Gómez’s assist for Pašalić in a 1-1 draw with City kickstarted the revival, with a strike of his own in a 2-0 win over Dinamo followed by a 3-0 win over Shakhtar in the final match. It was but another miraculous turnaround.
In December, Gómez was granted status as an honorary citizen of Bergamo “for having given importance to Bergamo in Europe, distinguished himself as a professional, and rejecting other offers to commit to Atalanta’s cause”. This last point is particularly important, highlighting the late bloom that both he and Iličić have undergone, with both players now 32.
This is but a number, however, with the figures of goals and assists far exceeding their advancing years. The very occupation of watching Atalanta, for so many decades a nail-biting tale of survival and uncertainty, has been turned into an artistic experience. The air of mystique remains, but only around what Papu and his Slovene assistant are going to conjure up next.
One man who can certainly attest to this is the unfortunate Chiricheș. In late September 2019, he was on the end of another Gómez special. Holding off Berardi and playing through the legs of Jeremy Toljan, Gómez made Chiricheș despair once again as he fired past Andrea Consigli in a 4-1 win. A month later, Atalanta put seven past Udinese, with Iličić grabbing a brace and Gómez two assists.
Moving into December, in the spirit of Christmas, two players who are renowned for their humble characters decide to give the gift of goals to AC Milan supporters. Early in the first half, Iličić picked the ball up on the halfway line, spreading it to the left to Gómez. Turning into space on the wing, the Argentine accelerated towards his former teammate Andrea Conti, playing through his legs before firing high past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Into the second half, an arching ball from Gómez found Gosens, who converted with a low shot that Pašalić claimed as his own. Feeling somewhat left out, Iličić decided to get in on the party. In a fast counter, Pašalić played across to the Slovenian, who bode his time to hold off Davide Calabria and make it 3-0. Shortly after, Gómez took over a free-kick some 30 yards out, and rather than playing it into a crowded box, he passed across to Iličić. Stepping inside Suso onto his favoured left foot, the result was another special goal. It ended 5-0 to La Dea in a humbling of the seven-time European champions.
Traditionally, those in Italy exchange gifts on 6 January, the day of Epiphany. How fitting that Iličić scored one of the goals of the season on this date against Parma. Gosens set off on a typical galloping run down the left flank, although the box was bereft of any black and blue shirts. Biding his time, the German managed to float an inviting ball towards the back post. There to meet it was the left boot of Iličić. The connection was perfect, the ball flying into the top corner. In response, Parma goalkeeper Luigi Sepe simply pulled a face that said “fair enough”.
In the same game, Iličić scored another wondergoal, demonstrating his technical prowess to slalom between three defenders and stroke beyond Sepe again. Gómez also scored a stunner, commencing what turned into another 5-0 victory with a shot flying in off the bar from 25 yards out.
As the highest scorers in Serie A, any team would be foolish to leave the goal unguarded against Atalanta. This is, however, what Torino’s Salvatore Sirigu did later that month. Having played a long kick which ended in a handball, Iličić sensed the ‘keeper out of position. With little hesitation he let fly from the halfway line. Needless to say, the ball descended in a perfect arch into the back of the net.
In the celebration, Gómez got down on his knee to polish the left boot of Iličić, its bright red shell housing an assortment of powers. Characteristically it is the Argentine who assisted Iličić’s third, playing a one-two with Zapata before sliding through for the Slovenian to finish. For good measure, Gómez added another assist for Luis Muriel to round off an evening that saw seven without reply.
The conclusion to be drawn is, when you face an in-the-mood Atalanta, little can be done to stop them. Valencia found out the truth behind this statement in the Champions League round of 16, going down 4-1 in Italy in the first leg. Staging the game would later come under intense scrutiny in the event of the Covid-19 pandemic, dubbed “a biological bomb” for spreading the virus in Italy. In hindsight, s cancellation would have been preferable, but there is little Atalanta’s players could have done.
Ever the professionals, less than a fortnight later, Iličić got a hat-trick of assists as Atalanta tore Lecce apart in another game in which they scored seven, prior to travelling to the Mestalla for the second leg of their knockout tie. In that, Iličić broke Champions League history to become the first player to score four goals in an away knockout match. In an eerily empty Mestalla, the Slovene handed Atalanta an 8-4 aggregate victory and passage through to the quarter-finals. In almost obsessive nature, Gómez felt the need to assist Iličić in his post-match press conference, interrupting to kiss his teammate on the head in adulation.
Watching somewhere in a locked-down house, Mazzoleni affords himself a smile as he nostalgically recalls officiating that afternoon in Sicily. When exactly, if at all, Atalanta will find out the identity of their opponents in the last-eight remains shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, they have already exceeded expectations by progressing this far in the Champions League. It has taken over a century, but in Papu Gómez and Josip Iličić, the goddess has some players befitting of her beauty.
By James Kelly @jkell403