Sports Mole previews Thursday’s Europa League clash between Atalanta BC and Olympiacos, including predictions, team news and possible lineups.
The teams convene in Bergamo, after the hosts were eliminated from the Champions League group stage and their visitors qualified as Group D runners-up.
As Atalanta were ultimately unable to make it through to the last 16 of Europe’s elite competition for the third time in a row – losing their crucial final Group F fixture 3-2 at home to Villarreal – they now enter the knockout phase of the continent’s second-tier tournament for just the second time.
La Dea’s previous appearance, back in 2018, ended in the last 32 with elimination by Borussia Dortmund, after they had topped their group undefeated. They had no such luck in the Champions League this season, though, managing just one win in their six games and finishing on six points.
Indeed, the Bergamaschi’s final matchday defeat was of several on home soil this term, and Gian Piero Gasperini‘s side have been brittle at the Gewiss Stadium throughout much of the current campaign.
Most recently, a late implosion against 10-man Fiorentina saw them exit the Coppa Italia and consigned them to a fourth successive match without victory, and Atalanta have now managed just three wins from 13 home games in the league following Sunday night’s Serie A draw with fellow top-four contenders Juventus.
Danilo‘s heartbreaking stoppage-time equaliser cancelled out a thunderbolt from the fearsome left boot of Ruslan Malinovskyi, who made an immediate impact from the bench – playing like a man possessed by the injustice of exclusion from the starting lineup.
As a result, the Nerazzurri face a springtime scrap for a return to the Champions League by way of a top four finish, and a record of three draws and two losses from their last five league and cup games tells the tale of a side going off the boil.
Sitting fifth in the Serie A standings, Atalanta return to continental action having also won only one of their last seven European fixtures in Bergamo. Ahead of this Thursday’s first leg, though, the Lombardy club have never lost at home in either the Europa League or UEFA Cup – a total of 12 ties in all.
Having been crowned champions of Greece for a 46th time in last spring – finishing a remarkable 26 points clear of the Super League runners-up – Olympiacos are one of five reigning national champions involved in this month’s playoff round.
The Erythrolefki arrived at this stage by virtue of failure to return to the Champions League group stage – losing on penalties to Ludogorets in the third qualifying round – and subsequently coming second in Europa League Group D behind Eintracht Frankfurt.
With three wins and three defeats, they clinched qualification with a game to spare, and are now making a joint-record ninth appearance in the competition’s knockout phase. Indeed, they are aiming to reach the last 16 for the fifth time – and for the third successive season.
Despite dominating domestically, Olympiacos have never made it beyond that stage, so will be eager to get the better of Atalanta over the next week and take another shot at reaching the last eight.
Under Portuguese coach Pedro Martins, the visitors are on course for their 47th title, sitting nine points clear of PAOK after they scored late on to take maximum points in the Athens derby with AEK last weekend. The Piraeus club took one step closer to completing an unbeaten regular season – finding the decisive goal through former Inter midfielder Yann M’Vila in the 84th minute.
In addition to such league form, before the trip to Bergamo they can also reflect on a commendable away record in the Europa League knockout phase. Winning five of their 12 games on the road, Olympiacos registered victories at Arsenal in both of the past two campaigns and were unbeaten in five successive European away matches until a 3-1 defeat in Frankfurt last October.
Atalanta BC form (all competitions):
Olympiacos Europa League form:
Olympiacos form (all competitions):
Since their exit from the Champions League, Atalanta have brought in Ivorian winger Jeremie Boga from Sassuolo and Valentin Mihaila of Parma to their European squad, while Robin Gosens, Matteo Lovato and Roberto Piccoli have moved out on loan.
The hosts have also been hit by the absence of star striker Duvan Zapata, who may be ruled out until April at least, and have concerns over the fitness of centre-back Jose Luis Palomino. Russian midfielder Aleksei Miranchuk is also out injured.
Goalkeeper Juan Musso should return to Gian Piero Gasperini’s starting lineup after serving a suspension against Juventus, so deputy Marco Sportiello drops to the bench.
Meanwhile, over the winter break, Olympiacos have added Bandiougou Fadiga, Garry Rodrigues and former Roma defender Kostas Manolas, who rejoined the club from Napoli last month. The Greece international left for Rome in 2014 and made a total of 216 Serie A appearances.
Michal Karbownik, Svetozar Markovic and Ahmed Hassan are among those who have left, but the defence will still be helmed by Sokratis Papastathopoulos. An ever-present during the group stage, the veteran centre-back played under Gasperini at Genoa from 2008 to 2010.
Atalanta BC possible starting lineup:
Musso; Djimsiti, Demiral, Toloi; Hateboer, De Roon, Freuler, Zappacosta; Malinovskyi, Boga; Muriel
Olympiacos possible starting lineup:
Vaclik; Lala, Manolas, Sokratis, Reabciuk; M. Camara, M’Vila; Onyekuru, A. Camara, Masouras; Tiquinho
We say: Atalanta BC 1-1 Olympiacos
While impressively disciplined in their draw with Juventus, another failure to pick up maximum points will inevitably knock confidence in an ailing Atalanta squad, which has lost direction since the turn of the year.
Though lacking the individual quality of their hosts in several departments, Olympiacos can boast enough experience and nous to grind out a first-leg draw and keep this tie in the balance heading back to the Greek capital.