With Serie A being as tight as ever, Atalanta headed into their home fixture against Cagliari with the aspiration of making the third spot their own, leapfrogging the in-form Roma in the process. The visitors headed into the fixture with lofty ambitions themselves. Spearheaded by Radja Nainggolan, the Islanders could go level on points with their hosts if they managed to get all three points.
Story of the Match
Cagliari started the game with real pace and intensity, attempting to expose the weaknesses of Atalanta's system which relies on each player winning their individual battle's. This was exhibited when Giovanni Simeone was released down the left of the host's defence, forcing Gollini into a smart save to his near post after three minutes.
Cagliari continued to play smart football and continued to force the issue as Simeone got onto a near-post corner but his header was just a little bit ahead Joao Pedro, who was agonizingly close to scoring a tap-in.
The conditions were arguably affecting the quality of each team's possession as neither side could gain a firm foothold in the match as the tempo of the game was often frantic in the first 15 minutes.
The second big chance of the game came for the visitors. A superb flick round the corner from Lucas Castro fed the highly rated Marco Rog who could not beat the onrushing Gollini. Atalanta's midfield was struggling with the intensity of the likes of Radja Nainggolan, Rog and Castro and at times were almost none-existant, defensively.
A promising build-up down Atalanta's left and in particular great work from Mario Pasalic lead to a looping cross to the far post. Timothy Castagne was waiting for the ball and drilled the ball just wide from 15 yards out, just wide of Robin Olsen's goal.
A superb move from Cagliari which involved Simeone once again running down the flank and beating his marker for pace lead to a drilled cross across the box falling at the feed of Joao Pedro, who had his shot blocked from committed Atalanta defenders. There was no doubting after half an hour that Cagliari were the better side and deserved to have seen their name on the score sheet.
Cagliari's dominance resulted in a much-deserved lead with 32 minutes on the clock. A wicked delivery into the box from Charalambos Lykogainnis took several deflections as the ball trickled past a stationary Pierluigi Gollini. The last touch ended up coming off the unfortunate Pasalic, who was helpless to see his name on the scoresheet for the wrong team. At times in football, you can indeed earn your good luck and this was certainly the case for Cagliari, who were superb in the opening half an hour of the match.
However, when you have players with the talent of Papu Gomez, anything can happen in the blink of an eye. Trademark neat interplay on the edge of the box earned the little Argentinian a little pocket of space and he needed no second invitation to let fly. His shot flew from his foot and crashed against the bar onto Olsen, who can count his lucky stars that it went out for a corner and not an own goal.
But things went from bad to worse for Gian Piero Gasperini's side as his talisman Ilicic got a straight red card just before the 40th-minute mark. As Lykogainnis was guarding the ball out of play, frustration got the better of Josep Ilicic as he swung a leg at the Greek full-back.
More Cagliari pressure followed as Simeone unleashed a rocket-shot from 30 yards which whistled past the post. In a half where Cagliari was comfortably the better team and now with the added pressure of being down a man, a miracle was required from Gasperini in the dressing room to force a positive result.
Gasperini made a double change at the break. Papu Gomez came off for Ukrainian Artem Milenovskiy and Robin Gosens was replaced by Hans Hateboer in an attempt to freshen things up and give the hosts some life in the match.
Cagliari was managing the game perfectly until the 58th minute where they stepped up a few gears on the break. Christian Oliva broke from deep, putting Simeone in behind the Atalanta defence yet again. The Argentine cut the ball back and the ball fell kindly for the midfielder as he lifted the ball over Gollini. A super free-flowing move for the deserved leaders.
Hateboer nearly gave Atalanta an instant response after the ball bounced around the box falling for the dutch wing-back. However, the substitute struck the ball like a defender as the shot was scuffed wide of the target.
Atalanta for the first 15 minutes of the second half was looking like a side who were missing their star front three. Without Gomez, Duvan Zapata and Ilicic they lacked the thrust in the final third that has destroyed so many teams over the 18 months.
Atalanta remained the side with most the ball but was struggling to penetrate. Cagliari looked like a side comfortable with their two-goal and a man advantage.
Malinovskiy made a positive impact off the bench, however, as he was a central figure every time Atalanta threatened and whipped several dangerous corners into the box. Ultimately though, his efforts were largely going to waste as Cagliari stayed compact at the back with the threat of Simeone's pace on the break.
Musa Barrow was brought off the bench and added extra energy. The striker came closest to scoring in the second half as he got in behind the Cagliari defence and forced a smart stop from Olsen.
This chance gave Atalanta a new lease of life as they put in a couple of dangerous crosses which whistled across the box and forcing errors in the heart of the visitor's defence. Rafael Toloi, in particular, was at the heart of this mini resurgence, as the centre back consistently broke out of defence with the ball in an attempt to force the issue.
However, Cagliari remained a threat on the break as Nandez had a dangerous breakaway which ended in Gollini making another much-needed save, this time with his feet.
The Ukrainian playmaker again proved to be a danger for Cagliari as he unleashed a fierce effort from distance which forced the former Roma goalkeeper in pushing the effort out for a corner. The Sweedish keeper knew the importance of this save as he celebrated it like a goal.
Another ball into the box produced another Barrow chance, but his effort was yet again stopped by a combination of a few committed Cagliari players. This was a typical feature in the match as it is clear why Cagliari are having such an impressive season due to their commitment levels.
Cagliari finished the game with Nainggolan dictating proceedings, a sight which dominated a lot of the match. A famous win for Cagliari and the second in a row when visiting Atalanta. In truth, the hosts may hide behind the stupidity of talisman Ilicic's red card but they were always the second-best team.
Radja Nainggolan was dominant throughout the match in what was on paper a difficult away game. The Belgian international dominated the ball and was the one player on the pitch who stood out. He drove forward when necessary and kept the ball when his side were under pressure. He is proving one of the best signings in the league this season and could well lead Cagliari to a European spot.
Christian Oliva was drafted into this match to replace the fantastic Nandez and proved that he is also a player that can play at the highest level. The 23-year-old was combative and Atalanta struggled to live with his intensity throughout the match. The Uruguayan thoroughly deserved his goal and finished the chance like a 20 goal-a-season striker.
Pierluigi Gollini was probably Atalanta's best player which speaks volumes of how Atalanta played. In a scoreline which arguably flattered the Champions League side, they had their keeper to thank to keep them in the game, even when it was 11 vs 11. The former Aston Villa keeper was terrific throughout the match and had no chance with any of the goals.