MILAN: After their remarkable run in the Champions League and record-equalling third-place finish in Serie A, Atalanta have already set their main target for next season: avoid relegation.
The provincial club's 2019-20 Champions League run ended in heart-breaking fashion on Wednesday as they conceded two very late goals to lose 2-1 to Paris St Germain, a club with vastly superior spending power, in their quarter-final in Lisbon.
But many would like to see free-scoring Atalanta go even further next season and provide more moment such as their 8-4 last 16 aggregate win over Valencia.
However, the financial realities of modern football make it difficult for the likes of Atalanta to compete regularly with the big clubs as their president Antonio Percassi made clear when asked if they could target the Serie A title next season.
"Let's think first about saving ourselves," he said. "Anything more than that is fantastic. We suffered for years, and our goal is to stay in Serie A. That's the reality, it's always been like that."
For Europe's biggest clubs, the end of the season and the following transfer window is a time for cherry-picking the most talented players from smaller rivals by making financial offers that neither the player nor the club can refuse.
By the same logic, the challenge for middle-ranking teams such as Atalanta is to avoid having their best players, and their coach, snatched away, leaving them having to rebuild from scratch.
So far Atalanta have managed to avoid that fate. Having been relegated three times between 2003 and 2011, Atalanta have enjoyed a vast improvement following the arrival of coach Gian Piero Gasperini in 2016.
The 62-year-old led them to fourth place in his first season and despite seeing Andrea Conti and Franck Kessie leave for AC Milan, they rebuilt and finished seventh in 2017-18, also reaching the Coppa Italia semi-finals.
That was followed by successive third places in 2018-19 and then again this term, which also featured their debut in the Champions League. But it always feels as if the Sword of Damocles is hanging over them.
"Several players will be targeted, not just Duvan Zapata," said Percassi, referring to the Colombia striker. "We will do everything we can to keep them, unless the sums involved are impossible to refuse."
"Our progress has not been a fluke, it has been a constant growth and we intend to keep that process going," he added.
"Football is a meritocracy. We see a lot of small-medium clubs in Italy working in this direction, and we hope that there can be more following our journey."