Borussia Dortmund players Jadon Sancho and Manuel Akanji have been fined undisclosed sums for violating the Bundesliga hygiene rules, with England winger England winger Sancho branding the decision an “absolute joke”.
The Champions League so far this season has been full of surprises, with reigning champions Liverpool and last season’s finalists Spurs both knocked out in the Round of 16.
Last year’s surprise package and eventual semi-finalists Ajax didn’t even make it out of the competition’s group stage.
However, one team that has caught the eye this season is Gian Piero Gasperini’s swashbuckling Atalanta side.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for Atalanta fans in their debut Champions League campaign. La Dea lost their first three group games, which included a 5-1 loss to Manchester City and a 4-0 battering at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb. However, a 1-1 draw with Manchester City at home kickstarted their European campaign, and a win against both Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk secured an unlikely berth in the Round of 16.
This was followed by an astonishing 8-4 aggregate win over Valencia in the Round of 16, a tie that brought Atalanta the European recognition they deserved. One player in particular who has gained recognition recently and has had a scintillating season so far is veteran attacker Josip Ilicic. The Slovenian forward has 15 goals and five assists in Serie A this season, and he scored five goals in the Champions League tie against Valencia.
The 32-year-old has spent almost a decade in Italian Football, first moving to Palermo from NK Maribor in August 2010 for €2.3 million (A$4.15 million). In his three years in Palermo and following four years Fiorentina prior to his move to Atalanta in 2017 he showed his quality at times but never proved the world-class talent he has been in the later stages of his career. While at Palermo Ilicic met Gasperini, who would go on to have a major effect on his career at Atalanta.
Since his move to the Italian alps in 2017 at the age of 29 he has improved year on year playing as a second striker for the Nerazzurri, registering tallies of 11 goals and eight assists and 12 goals with seven assists in his previous two Serie A seasons for the club. However, the Slovenian has again aged like a fine wine, with this season proving to be the best of his career so far.
As well as registering 15 goals and five assists in the league this season, he has been the key man in a free-scoring Atalanta side that have scored seven goals on three separate occasions this season. As well as being the top scorer in the squad and providing the second most assists behind Papu Gomez, he also takes the most shots per game, most dribbles per game and is the most fouled player in the Atalanta squad, while his 2.5 key passes per 90 is only bettered by Papu Gomez.
While none of these statistics would be considered individually exceptional, it is the fact that Ilicic can simply do it all that makes him a world-class footballer. He can drop off the striker, usually Duvan Zapata, and drive at defences and orchestrate chances, or he can play on the last shoulder and score large tallies of goals. This is displayed in the fact he has directly contributed to 32 per cent of his side’s goals despite playing only 66 per cent of the available minutes this season.
The only true downfall to his game is that he is 32 and his legs aren’t what they once were. Despite playing in every Serie A game he has been available for, making 21 league appearances this season, he has played a full 90 minutes for Atalanta on only seven occasions this season – although the relatively low number of minutes played by Ilicic this season highlights further the impressive nature of his goal and assist tallies this season.
While there are undoubtedly a number of world-class players playing in Serie A, from goal machine Ciro Immobile to worldwide superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, the brilliance of Josip Ilicic in Gasperini’s Atalanta side can no longer be understated in not just Italy but the world.
If and when the season resumes, many Serie A and Champions League defences alike can only hope they don’t have to deal with Ilicic for a full 90 minutes.