Atalanta head to Ajax with a slender advantage ahead of Wednesday’s showdown for a place in the Champions League last 16 on the final day of group action.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta sit second behind Group D winners Liverpool and one point ahead of third-placed Ajax, and need to avoid defeat in Amsterdam to book their place in the knockout stages for the second consecutive year.
Four-time European champions Ajax — last winners in 1995 — must win to ensure their passage after missing out last season.
The encounter at the Johan Cruyff Arena features two teams who drew 2-2 in Bergamo on matchday two, when Atalanta came back from two goals down thanks to a Duvan Zapata brace.
“We have the advantage of going to Amsterdam with the possibility of qualifying with a draw,” said Gasperini after a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Danish side Midtjylland last time out.
Both teams have captured Europe’s imagination with their stylish play in recent years, but have shown a dip in form amid the tight schedule of games.
In 2019 Erik ten Hag’s young guns stunned Juventus and Real Madrid on their way to reaching the semi-finals for the first time since 1997, but last season they failed to make it past the group stage after selling some of their biggest stars.
Atalanta pulled off the improbable by reaching the quarter-finals last season on their debut in the European competition, despite losing their three opening group games.
In their first campaign, the northern Italian side played their European home games at San Siro because their own stadium was undergoing renovation work.
But despite playing this season in Bergamo, they have not won a European match at home, with draws against Ajax and Midtjylland, and a heavy 5-0 defeat to Liverpool.
On the road the Italians have had more success, beating Midtjylland 4-0 and shocking Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield.
Ajax lost 1-0 home and away to Liverpool, and won their two games against Midtjylland.
– ‘Sluggish’ –
However Atalanta have picked up just one win in their last six games in Serie A and the Champions League.
Forwards Zapata, Luis Muriel and captain Papu Gomez — who have 15 goals between them this season — have gone six games without scoring.
“The fixture schedule is really tight and this caused problems for all teams,” said Gasperini.
“The performances have been there, just like the ability to react to defeats like the one suffered against Liverpool.”
Gasperini’s side were given room to catch their breath before their Dutch trip after Sunday’s Serie A game at Udinese was postponed due to heavy rain making the pitch unplayable.
Ajax are unbeaten in their last seven games against Italian opponents in the Champions League, with their last defeat coming against Inter Milan in March 2006.
Dusan Tadic has been involved in five of Ajax’s seven goals in this Champions League — scoring two and setting up three others.
The Serb scored a penalty at the weekend but Ajax fell to just their second league defeat this season, 2-1 to FC Twente, not the dress rehearsal Ten Hag had been hoping for.
“It was too sluggish. It didn’t look like the team were ready to play,” the coach said.