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Atalanta aim to avoid another Man City slaughter

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Milan (AFP)

Gian Piero Gasperini warned that psychology will be key as Italian newcomers Atalanta look to avoid another huge defeat at the hands of Champions League rivals Manchester City in Milan on Wednesday.

The Premier League champions can seal their ticket to the knockout rounds with a win over Atalanta, who have lost all three Group C games in their first ever foray into the elite European competition.

Man City are top of their group with maximum nine points and 10 goals scored, with the Bergamo side bottom after conceding 11 goals conceded and scoring just two.

Five of those came last time out, when an 11-minute Raheem Sterling hat-trick helped City to a 5-1 win in Manchester.

"The psychological aspect will be fundamental," said Gasperini.

"It's a tight turnaround, but we'll prepare as best we can."

Atalanta hit back in Serie A days later with a 7-1 demolition of lowly Udinese, but they have felt the absence of star Colombian striker Duvan Zapata, who has been out with a thigh injury picked up on international duty last month.

Without him Atalanta have slipped from third to fifth in Serie A, eight points behind leaders Juventus after a 2-0 defeat to Cagliari at the weekend.

Juventus, Inter Milan and Napoli are used to measuring themselves against the European elite, but Atalanta's only trophy was the Italian Cup back in 1963.

The turn around in their fortunes has been orchestrated by former Genoa and Palermo boss Gasperini who took over in 2016.

The 61-year-old's success at Atalanta came eight years after being sacked by Inter Milan after just three months.

The northeners sprinted to third in Serie A last season ahead of Inter Milan, their best ever finish, with the most goals scored, and reached the Italian Cup final.

This season they have continued on the same path leading the way in the scoring charts with 30 goals scored after 11 rounds.

- Zapata return essential -

Their success has been largely powered by Zapata, who stayed on after finishing second top scorer in Serie A last season with 23 goals.

Fellow Colombian Luis Muriel arrived last summer from Fiorentina, joining Argentine forward Alejandro Gomez and Slovenian striker Josip Ilicic.

Zapata (6) and Muriel (8) have accounted for 14 league goals between them this term.

And Gasperini expressed his fury when Zapata, on a four-game scoring run, pulled up injured in a "useless" friendly with Colombia.

Zapata has been key to Atalanta's exciting high-pressing and fast paced style of play, which should in theory have carried over to Europe.

But they have had a baptism of fire with defeats at Dinamo Zagreb (4-0), Man City (5-1) and letting a 1-0 lead slip against Shakhtar at the San Siro to lose 2-1.

Despite their struggles Brazilian defender Rafael Toloi insisted that Atalanta are in their rightful place among the European elite.

"We've earned to the right to play such opponents," the 28-year-old said ahead of meeting Man City.

"They have super players, Sterling is very fast, so we'll have to be aggressive and very careful in the markings. We know that with our fans at home we can do well."

Atalanta can still theoretically reach last 16.

And their 'home' game will be at the San Siro, 56km from Bergamo, deemed more suitable by UEFA than their 21,000-seater Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia.

But the odds are stacked as they take on Man City, who are second in the Premier League and on a run of 10 wins from their last 11 matches in all competitions.

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