There are no medals for Serie A’s ‘Winter Champions’. Every year, that title is foisted on the team thattopsthe table at the season’s midway stage, and every year the players and manager point out that it does not mean a great deal. It has become less a celebration than a custom: a moment to reflect on the preceding months and consider where the actual title race stands.

Some years, though, the ritual feels especially absurd. On Saturday, Milan became Winter Champions on the same day that they got thrashed 3-0 by Atalanta – clinging on to top spot only because Inter also drew with Udinese. “That does not give me anything,” grumbled Zlatan Ibrahimovic when the subject was raised during a post-game interview.

There are plenty of reasons to admire Milan’s achievement. They have led from the front all season, far exceeding expectations for the youngest squad in the division. The Rossoneri are 18 points better off than they were at the corresponding point last year and seven ahead of the reigning champions, Juventus. Saturday’s loss was only the second that they have suffered in Serie A since Italy emerged from its first coronavirus lockdown in the spring.

These are strong foundations for a Scudetto push. Since Serie A adopted three points for a win, 19 out of 26 Winter Champions have gone on to win the real thing.

On this weekend, though, they were overshadowed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they were completely eclipsed. Watching the action unfold at San Siro on Saturday, it felt at times as though 21 other players were obscured by the magnificence of Josip Ilicic.

Every time Atalanta attacked, there was the Slovenian: beating his man, finding the space, orchestrating. He had a pivotal role in the opening goal, receiving a short corner and laying the ball off to Robin Gosens, who picked out Cristian Romero at the back post. Ilicic scored the second from the penalty spot after drawing the foul himself. His quick feet in a crowded midfield launched the attack that ended with Duván Zapata burying the third.

At times even he seemed to get lost in his own talent: taking a feint over the ball and losing control at one moment when a first-time shot seemed the more obvious choice. “I need to get better with things like that,” Ilicic pondered at full-time. “Sometimes something pops into my head at the last second and I just do it.”

What a thrill it is to watch him, though, when those intuitions come off. What a treat, indeed, to see him on the pitch at all. Ilicic took time away from football over the summer, departing Bergamo and returning to Slovenia even as his team were competing for honours on multiple fronts during the delayed and congested conclusion to the 2019-20 campaign.

Atalanta’s outgoing club captain, Papu Gómez, would later state that his teammate “had Covid and suffered a lot with it, falling into depression”. Ilicic has not used such explicit terms to describe his own experience, but after returning to action in October, he acknowledged some of his struggle.

“I felt Covid on my skin,” he said. “It’s not right to live like this, in this situation, especially for those [others] who are working 24 hours a day. I hope with all my heart that all this will pass, and we can get back to living.”

He cited his love of football, together with the support of his family, as something that allowed him to “find a way through it all”. There were echoes of that sentiment again after full-time on Saturday, when he remarked that: “I feel like a happy man because I am doing all the things that I love.”

Gian Piero Gasperini can only feel delighted as well. The Atalanta manager took a bold gamble when he excluded Gómez from the team at the end of last year – bringing the curtain down on the tenure of one of the club’s most beloved and brilliant players, who contributed a league-leading 16 assists last year. His team have scarcely missed a beat, remaining undefeated now for 13 games across all competitions since the start of December.

That is not all down to Ilicic. Gasperini has replaced Gómez – who is expected to join Sevilla imminently – with Matteo Pessina in the No10 role: a less gifted and creative talent but one whose physicality lends itself to the extremely aggressive high press the team has adopted in recent games.

At the other end of the pitch, Cristian Romero – signed on loan from Juventus in the summer, but with an option to buy – has emerged as a game-changing figure as well. Stepping out aggressively from the middle of Genoa’s back three, he has intercepted more passes than any other player in Serie A, capitalising on the errant distribution caused by his teammates’ harrying higher up the pitch.

He dominated the spaces that Ibrahimovic hoped to occupy on Saturday – leaving the Swede to grumble about being abandoned by his own teammates. Mistakes were made in Milan’s team selection, with the newly signed Soualiho Meité looking lost in the No10 spot, though that again was a testament to the visitors’ pressure and refusal to give him time to settle.

Benevento 2-2 Torino, Fiorentina 2-1 Crotone, Udinese 0-0 Inter, Milan 0-3 Atalanta, Roma 4-3 Spezia, Parma 0-2 Sampdoria, Lazio 2-1 Sassuolo, Verona 3-1 Napoli, Genoa 1-0 Cagliari, Juventus 2-0 Bologna.

Victory pulled Atalanta up to joint-fourth – level with Juventus, albeit having played one game more. Their 36 points are a club record for the midway stage of a Serie A campaign. They, too, are in this title race, despite Gasperini’s protest afterwards that “you will not put the word ‘Scudetto’ in my mouth.”

He will not be able to stop other people from saying it, if Ilicic carries on like this. It was in this same stadium, one year ago, that he inspired Atalanta to their spell-binding 4-1 win over Valencia, before going on to score another four goals by himself in the away leg.

“I thought about that a few minutes into the game tonight,” said Ilicic on Saturday. “I was thinking about how many people were there at San Siro that evening, about how much we miss our public, the fans. It’s more beautiful to play with them, we enjoy ourselves more.”

The feeling is undoubtedly mutual. Atalanta seemed to be having enough fun all the same on Saturday, as they buried the Winter Champions under a flurry of goals.

Nicky will post her talking points in the comments section below

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