We moved into 2032 celebrating youth product Matteo Giacalone becoming the first Atalanta player in history to win World Player of the Year and World Golden Ball awards.
And the new year saw an exciting new arrival, with 17-year-old Belgian midfielder Nolan Pankert join the club from Anderlecht for £7 million.
Our chances of retaining the Serie A title for the eighth time were looking decidedly slim, given Inter held a ten-point gap at the top and remained unbeaten moving into January. And their stronghold over us continued with a 2-1 defeat in the Italian Super Cup.
But we returned to league action after the Winter break in astounding form, by hitting Fiorentina for seven. 17-year-old right-winger George Aliyu got things started with a first-half brace, centre-back Gabriele D’Alessandro got his first goal for the club, then a Timmi Uldbjerg brace and a goal from Bjorn Amler and an own goal wrapped up a 7-1 thrashing.
That sparked a great run of form of six straight wins and 11 games unbeaten, including a vital 2-1 win over AC Milan in which the still free-scoring Giacalone bagged a brace after Vinicius Junior’s (yep, that Vinicius Junior) screamer had put the hosts ahead early on.
We eventually fell to defeat at AS Roma, a game in which we somehow threw away a 2-1 lead with 18 minutes remaining to lose 4-2 and despite having 25 shots to their 12. We also then failed to win at home to Napoli, who held us to 0-0 draw, but luckily Inter had begun to suffer a loss of form and our good form had closed the gap to just five points.
Two big title deciders
We got back to winning ways with a 4-1 home victory over Palermo, in which Aliyu bagged another brace, which sent us into two absolutely crucial, season-defining games at third-placed Juventus – which was our game in hand – and at home to leaders Inter Milan.
The first, at Juve, was possibly the most incredible match I’ve ever seen on Football Manager. Juve took a 4th-minute lead, then doubled it two minutes later through Brazilian striker Luis – who always scores against us. They undid their good start with an own goal after 7 minutes, then restored the lead three minutes later through Italy striker Cristian Bonotto – who also always scores against us. 10 minutes in, and Juventus 3-1 Atalanta. But we were only getting started with the chaos.
I’d started defensively, so scrapped that and moved to ‘Positive’ and it immediately worked as Godwin Okechukwu got us back into it just after the half-hour mark then Amler equalised four minutes later to make it 3-3 at half-time.
Luis grabbed his second five minutes into the second half, only for Okechukwu to respond with a second of his own three minutes later and Amler to follow suit another five minutes later to give us the lead for the first time. 58 minutes in and we were 5-4 up.
I thought great, let’s ease off a little and try to protect what we’ve got. But, that didn’t work as Luis went straight down the other end to complete his hat-trick and tie it up at 5-5. Now, I knew that game was basically a must-win so I decided we had to move back onto the attack – and straight away it worked. Edward Mensah got in on the act to put us 6-5 ahead then Okechukwu sealed the deal in the last few minutes to complete his hat-trick.
Juventus 5-7 Atalanta. Hat-tricks for Luis and Okechukwu. Braces for Bonotto and Amler. And the craziest thing about the craziest of matches was that our goalkeeper Christopher Onovo played an 8.2, making 14 saves and grabbing an assist – which means easily his best ever performance for us came when he conceded five goals!
That teed us up for a massive potential title decider with Inter. And we got off to a flyer as Okechuwu put us into the lead after 20 minutes, then Amler – deputising for Cosimo Marco Da Graca, who’d been ruled for three months – added a second five minutes later. Okechukwu effectively put a seal on the game just after the hour mark, then we held firm and even added a fourth through a late own goal.
That had us level on points with Inter and, as a result of better record against them, we were back to the summit of Serie A with six games to go.
Title goes to the wire
We backed that up with a 3-0 win at Cremonese thanks to an Okechukwu brace then a surprisingly edgy 1-0 win at home to Novara with Okechukwu once again the match winner. We then went and lost by the same scoreline at Lazio but, luckily, Inter also lost 2-1 at Empoli!
Our last three fixtures were, on paper, tricky, with trips to Sampdoria and Fiorentina – who were actually on the verge of relegation – then finishing at home to Milan. And we started well with a 4-2 win at Sampdoria thanks to an Amler hat-trick and a late Alexander Zeller long-range screamer.
Then we absolutely ran riot on a Fiorentina side that must have just fallen apart, given we’d already put seven past them and they’d recently conceded 10 against Lazio! We set a club record win of 9-1 with young central midfielder Benjamin Majanovic setting a club record for goals scored in a match as he bagged an incredible five – including a hat-trick before half-time. Aliyu bagged himself another brace and Amler and Okechukwu grabbed the others.
That meant we went into the final game of the season at home to Milan knowing a win would secure the title – although bizarrely we played our last match a week before Inter. We didn’t start well as Eddy Salcedo put the visitors ahead inside 8 minutes, then left-back Alberto Pfandler scored his first goal of the season to bring us level again within three minutes, only for Salcedo to restore their lead after 18 minutes. We won a penalty on the half-hour mark and Mensah coolly stepped up to convert to send us into half-time at 2-2.
20 minutes into the second half I brought the fit again Da Graca on for holding midfielder Ibrahima Ly and switched to two up-front. And it immediately paid off as Amler put us ahead. We held on and sealed the three points on the breakaway in the 93rd minute, with Da Graca racing through the middle to tee up Okechukwu for his 33rd goal of the season.
A miraculous league comeback was complete, and we’d secured a ninth straight Serie A title! We also racked up our highest goals tally to data with 117 goals scored, along with a worrying trend of conceding more goals. But just look at both us and Inter tied on 96 points at the top of the table.
We finished the season with the two top scorers in the league and four of our players in the top 10 scorers. Okechukwu topped the lot with 22, then Giacalone with 20, while Mensah and Amler both bagged 16.
We also had three of the top four assists tallies in the league, with Uldbjerg unsurprisingly top and four clear of anyone else and Mensah and Okechukwu claiming 15 and 13 respectively.
Giacalone also wonSerie A Player of the Year and the Serie A Goal of the Season award, which was the first time any of our players had won it in 13 seasons. While Mensah also set a new club record for average rating, with an impressive 7.67 average over 43 games – breaking Antonio Marin’s ten-year record.
Champions Cup challenge
With the high drama of the league comeback the Champions Cup took a bit of a back seat this season. We were superb to beat Tottenham 2-0 home and away in the first knockout round, and again to beat Manchester City 2-0 away then 2-1 at home through braces from Amler and Mensah respectively.
But the semi-finals saw us drawn with a ridiculously good Paris St-Germain side, who have four of the five most expensive players on my Player Search – including the stupidly good Michael Koster – and 10 players worth £60 million or more.
They beat us 2-0 in our home leg, so I rested first-teamers for the away leg and they smashed us 5-0. So hopes of back-to-back Champions Cup success were very much dead.
We ended the campaign by saying goodbye to an Absolute legend, as Carlos Valderrama retired. I’d signed him as an Under-20s coach in my first month as Manager of Atalanta, eventually stepping him up to a Coach and he’d stayed with us for all 13 seasons.