MILAN: Defying the economics of modern European football, unheralded Atalanta are threatening to deny AC Milan their long-awaited return to the Champions League.
With another Juventus title win now a formality - a draw at SPAL on Saturday will earn the Turin side an eighth successive Scudetto with six games to spare - the real excitement in Serie A is now in the race for the Champions League slots.
Atalanta have never played in Europe's flagship competition, and would not have initially been considered as contenders for one of the four places.
The Bergamo outfit are the sort of middle-ranking European club who, as soon as they have a good season, see their best players snapped up by bigger clubs, have to start all over again and often slip back into obscurity.
Remarkably, however, Atalanta have refused to lie down and, with seven games left, are level on 52 points with fourth-placed Milan. They are followed by Roma (51) and Lazio and Torino (49).
While Milan and Lazio meet on Saturday, Atalanta have a relatively straightforward match at home to lowly Empoli on Monday.
After finishing fourth in 2016-17, Atalanta almost inevitably lost two top players as Andrea Conti and Franck Kessie left for AC Milan, while midfielder Roberto Gagliardini had joined Inter Milan halfway through the season.
But they rebuilt and enjoyed another impressive season in 2017-18 when they finished seventh in Serie A, reached the Coppa Italia semi-finals and topped their Europa League group.
Although they showed signs of cracking early this season, Atalanta have instead bounced back stronger than ever.
They are Serie A's joint top scorers alongside Juventus, with 64 goals in 31 games, and have reached the Coppa Italia semi-finals after eliminating the Turin side with a 3-0 win.
In playmaker Alejandro Gomez, the gifted Josip Ilicic and powerful goalscorer Duvan Zapata, they have arguably Serie A's most potent attacking trio, even if that is partly offset by a leaky defence.
Coach Gian Piero Gasperini insisted recently that he was still aiming for the Europa League rather than the Champions League.
"The Champions is not our target," he said. "We will be happy just go get back into Europe - we are aiming for the Europa League or to win the Coppa Italia."
Even after Sunday's 0-0 draw away to third-placed Inter Milan, he shied away from Champions League talk.
"We’re not trying to be modest but we know there is a very tough road ahead," he said. "We’ll see how we do, week by week."
But former captain Massimo Carrera was more optimistic. "It's right to aim for the Champions League," he told Gazzetta dello Sport, putting their success down to Gasperini.
"He always gets the best out of his players. Every year, the club sells important players, but he always does it all over again. There's nothing to add - he's a real football maestro."
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Kevin Liffey)