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Champions League a step too far, says Atalanta coach

Milan (AFP) – Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini has played down suggestions the success-starved Serie A minnows could launch an audacious bid to qualify for the Champions League.

Gasperini lasted only five, winless matches at Inter Milan when he replaced Leonardo in 2011.

But the former Genoa handler’s stock is flying high after Atalanta’s shock 2-0 win at Napoli on Saturday, despite being reduced to 10 men following Franck Kessie’s second-half expulsion, which put them within sight of Europe’s premier club competition.

Atalanta’s second successive win over Napoli moves the ‘Nerazzurri’ up to fourth place, just three points behind Napoli in the third and last Champions League qualifying spot. 

But Gasperini said: “We have already targeted a place in the Europa League.”

He added: “We’re still a few points behind the big three, but then again, when you win like this at the home of Napoli it increases your credibility for being involved in the competition.”

Indeed Atalanta are the only side not to have conceded goals by Napoli this season, having also beaten Maurizio Sarri’s men 1-0 when they visited Bergamo in October.

Asked if he had some advice for Zinedine Zidane, whose Real Madrid side take a 3-1 lead over Napoli from the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie to Naples next month, Gasperini was coy: “I hope Napoli go through. I could see them winning 2-0.”

Atalanta, named after the female athlete in Greek mythology, was founded by Swiss immigrants in 1907 but although one of the most consistent of Italy’s provincial clubs, their trophy cabinet is virtually bare.

Atalanta won the Italian Cup in 1963, and won Serie B six times between 1928 and 2011. But when it comes to showcasing some of the raw talent to have come through the club, Atalanta have been up there with the best this season.

Ivory Coast forward Kessie is considered a huge prospect and was reportedly watched by scouts from Manchester United on Saturday.

Mattia Caldara, who struck twice on Saturday, has already agreed terms to join Serie A champions Juventus from 2018.

“Juventus will be enjoying a champion player over the next few years, that is sure,” Caldara’s agent, Giuseppe Riso, said this week. “He’s an incredible player.”

Even Gasperini, whose biggest achievement was leading Genoa to a fifth place finish in 2009 and a Europa League spot, has seen his stock go sky high. 

But he said: “I’m doing fine in Bergamo. I’m with a club that has stood behind me in some difficult times.

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