Bologna back in dreamland as Motta’s giddy journey jumbles up old order | Nicky Bandini

Alessio De Giuseppe hopped into the passenger seat of Riccardo Orsolini’s car without stopping to check where it was headed. The Dazn reporter had been waiting outside Bologna’s training ground, hoping to speak with players after their qualification to next season’s Champions League was confirmed by Atalanta’s 2-1 win over Roma on Sunday night. Orsolini pulled out of the gates and gestured for him to get in. Like a hitchhiker with no fixed destination, De Giuseppe climbed in first and asked questions later.

This scene unfolded live on TV, rendered more surreal by the camera cutting back not only to Dazn’s panel of analysts in the studio but also to images of a laughing Cesc Fàbregas in a white jacket. The former Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea midfielder was joining the show via a separate video call to speak about his work helping Como to get promoted to Serie A.

“Where are we going, Orso?” asked De Giuseppe at last. “I don’t know,” came the deadpan reply from the Bologna winger as he navigated his car into the city. “Where are you going?” Reminded that he was the one driving, Orsolini laughed and replied: “Let’s celebrate. Where shall we go?”

Similarly giddy moments were unfolding across the city. Thousands massed in the Piazza Maggiore, where red-and-blue lights decorating the Palazzo del Podestà were accented by the glare of supporters’ fireworks and flares. And why not? Their team was headed back to Europe’s top club competition for the first time in 60 years.

There was an era when Bologna dominated Italian football, though few living supporters might remember it. They won their first national title in 1925 and had added five more by the time Serie A was suspended due to the second world war.

It is an uncomfortable and violent chapter to look back on, when Benito Mussolini’s fascist government was exerting its influence in all aspects of life, including football. Bologna’s first championship was earned with a victory over Genoa in the third replay of a title playoff that could not be decided in an initial two-legged tie or two subsequent games at neutral venues.

The first of those was interrupted by pitch invasions. There are contradicting claims in contemporary reports of how these unfolded, but it is generally agreed that the referee attempted to have the game abandoned before instead awarding Bologna a goal he had not seen. The historian John Foot writes in his book, Calcio, that rising fascist politician Leandro Arpinati was influential in ensuring that the tie went to another replay instead of being awarded to Genoa.

A second replay ended with gunshots being aimed from a train carrying Bologna supporters toward another with Genoa fans aboard. That season is sometimes referred to even now as the Scudetto delle Pistole (The Scudetto of the Pistols).

Much has changed since. The city of Bologna became a left-wing stronghold. The southern stand of the football team’s stadium, the Renato Dall’Ara, is named after Arpad Weisz, the Jewish Hungarian manager who led them to two of their 1930s league titles. He fled Italy following the introduction of racial laws and was murdered at the Nazi’s Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944.

Bologna claimed their seventh, and most recent, league title in 1964. They added a pair of Coppa Italia triumphs in the 10 years that followed, but their most prestigious success in the half century since was to finish as one of three winners of the 1998 Intertoto Cup.

There was no trophy for that achievement, just like there will be none for finishing this season in Serie A’s top five. That does not make it any less impressive. For a team with the 15th-biggest wage bill in the division to sit above the likes of Juventus, Roma and Lazio with two games to play is extraordinary.

Bologna’s Riccardo Calafiori is challenged by Napoli’s Victor Osimhen – Calafiori managed his fifth assist of the season on Saturday. Photograph: Alberto Lingria/Reuters

Bologna had taken a big step toward their target when they won 2-0 at Napoli on Saturday night. Both goals came inside the opening 12 minutes, a pair of close-range headers that spoke as much to the calamitous state of last season’s champions as anything else. The defending was atrocious, but Bologna did their part by punishing it.

It was fitting, too, that both goals should be scored by players – Dan Ndoye and Stefan Posch – who had not previously found the net all season. Different players have shone in different moments. Joshua Zirkzee and Orsolini are the leading scorers, with 11 and 10 goals respectively. Lewis Ferguson could take over games with his forceful line-breaking energy, yet Bologna are undefeated without him since he tore his cruciate ligament last month.

The real star of their season, as noted in previous columns, has been the manager Thiago Motta, devising flexible systems that allow his players to express their talents to the fullest. Riccardo Calafiori, previously a left-back but moved inside by the manager to play as an atypically mobile central defender, added a team-leading fifth assist of the season against Napoli.

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For much of this season, it appeared Bologna would be battling against Atalanta for a Champions League spot. Instead, the Bergamo club has helped them to qualify, their own run to the Europa League final helping to secure a fifth Italian place in next season’s competition. If Atalanta beat Bayer Leverkusen on 22 May they will add yet another.

That is a pretty big “if”, against opponents who remain undefeated in 2023-24, but Atalanta have ceased to fear anyone since walloping Liverpool 3-0 at Anfield. They were far superior to Roma for the first hour of their game on Sunday and could have led by four goals if two attempts had not come back off the woodwork.

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Serie A results

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Atalanta 2-1 Roma, Juventus 1-1 Salernitana, Genoa 2-1 Sassuolo, Verona 1-2 Torino, Lazio 2-0 Empoli, Milan 5-1 Cagliari, Napoli 0-2 Bologna, Frosinone 0-5 Inter.

Monday Lecce v Udinese, Fiorentina v Monza.

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Instead, Atalanta had to settle for a pair of goals from Charles De Ketelaere and were dragged into a nervy finish after Marten de Roon fouled Tammy Abraham in the box. Lorenzo Pellegrini scored from the spot, but Roma still lost the game 2-1.

Now the Giallorossi must hope for Atalanta to do something they could not: beating Xabi Alonso’s Leverkusen. Roma ended the weekend in sixth, though they could yet lose that spot to a surging Lazio side who have taken 16 points from seven games since appointing Igor Tudor as manager.

Atalanta have more immediate priorities, with a Coppa Italia final coming up on Wednesday night. Their opponents, Juventus, warmed up this weekend by coming from behind to scrape a 1-1 draw in stoppage time against relegated Salernitana.

There is an anarchic feeling to this last part of the Serie A season. Internazionale and Milan still occupy the top two places, but behind them Bologna and Atalanta have upset the order of things, each with their own distinct brand of insurgent football.

Atalanta’s win on Sunday allowed Bologna to celebrate a return to Europe’s top table for the first time since 1964. Now Gian Piero Gasperini’s team want their own turn to party. The last piece of major silverware in their club cabinet dates back one year further even than Bologna’s, to a Coppa Italia triumph in 1963.

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