No Serie A player has scored more times this year than the Slovenian, who underlined his world-class talent with a historic four-goal haul at Valencia
Nobody at Atalanta calls Josip Ilicic by his name anymore. They call him ‘Il Professore’ because he gives lessons in the art of football.
His latest came at Mestalla on Tuesday night, with Ilicic scoring all of Atalanta’s goals in a 4-3 win over Valencia that saw the Champions League debutants progress to the quarter-finals 8-4 on aggregate.
It couldn’t have come at a better time for the people of Bergamo. They have suffered more than most because of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Italy. As the Gazzetta dello Sport read on Wednesday morning this was a “historic victory for Bergamo in its darkest hours.”
Ilicic was all smiles afterwards. “The older I get, the better I play,” the 32-year-old told Sky Sport Italia. “I’m having a lot of fun.”
Ilicic, though, hasn’t always had such a sunny disposition – which perhaps explains why only now is he making the most of his many gifts.
Indeed, for a long time Ilicic was considered an maddeningly frustrating character, a player blessed with talent but cursed with a poor attitude.
“He was something of a miserable moaner,” a coach who worked at Fiorentina during Vincenzo Montella’s first spell in charge tells Goal.
“A very nice guy off the training pitch but, on it, he looked unhappy. And he acted unhappy. He didn’t talk to many people. He didn’t even say hello to many people.
“I always thought he was a bit like a sulkier version of your stereotypical Brazilian footballer, in that he needed to feel happy in order to make the most of his extraordinary natural ability.
“Players like Ilicic sometimes need to feel important and he wasn’t one of the big stars at Fiorentina.
“At the time, Mario Gomez had just arrived, Juan Cuadrado was still there, Beppe Rossi too, Massimo Ambrosini and Alberto Aquilani.
“So, maybe that’s why there was no great consistency in his play. His performances fluctuated with his mood.”
Ilicic has always resented the idea – the myth as he sees it – that he didn’t deliver on a regular basis for Fiorentina. However, there’s no denying that he had a particular character.
He brought it with him to Atalanta too. In Bergamo, he was quickly nicknamed ‘La Nonna’ (‘The grandmother’) because he was always complaining.
Even coach Gian Piero Gasperini stopped courteously asking Ilicic how the attacker was feeling, as he would always reply, “Bad, bad.”
“I would instead immediately say, ‘You look good. You’re lively,'” the Atalanta boss told Sky Sport Italia.
Ilicic’s demeanour did change in Bergamo, though, for very dramatic reasons.
The Slovenian was deeply affected by the death of his former Fiorentina team-mate Davide Astori, who passed away at the age of just 31 on March 4, 2018 after suffering a cardiac arrest while he slept.
Ilicic was not only devastated by the loss of a man he considered a great friend but also shocked by the suddenness of the defender’s death.
“I wasn’t able to get any sleep, I was always thinking about him and I thought the same could happen to me too,” he confessed to the Corriere dello Sport.
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“I was scared and I was thinking: ‘What if the same happens to me? How can’t I see my daughter again?
“There was a moment when I was afraid to go to sleep, it lasted until a few weeks ago.”
Ilicic was worried sick. Then, he became sick.
In the summer of 2018, he was hospitalised by a mystery illness. Doctors suspected a bacterial infection of the lymph nodes but were never able to exactly diagnose Illic’s condition.
He eventually made a full recovery thanks to a programme of antibiotics but was in and out of hospital for two months.
Ilicic later told Atalanta’s official website that during that time, he “realised football isn’t everything in life.
“At times people get angry over nothing, but that illness changed me. We have to play with a smile; that’s the most important thing.”
He’s certainly had plenty to smile about since returning to action.
Last season, he played a pivotal role in Atalanta qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history by netting 12 times in 31 Serie A appearances.
This season, he has gone to another level. Never before had Ilicic scored more than 16 goals in all competitions across a single campaign. He already has 21 this term – and from just 29 outings.
His form since the turn of the year has been truly extraordinary. Indeed, he has scored more goals than any other Serie A player in all competitions in 2020 (14) – which is extraordinary when one considers the scoring streak that Cristiano Ronaldo has been on.
However, the reason why Ilicic is regarded by so many neutrals as the best player in Italy is not his impressive strike rate – though it has certainly helped alter his image of inconsistency – but the nature of his game, and his goals.
Ilicic has a left foot that could both be described as ‘a hammer’ and ‘a wand’ – and his right foot is excellent too, as underlined by his first-leg strike against Valencia.
However, it is his vision an innovation that sets him apart from the average attacker. It was hard not to think of Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he netted against Lecce last month.
The Swede once said of a movement that bamboozled Stephane Henchoz, “First, I went left; then, he did too. I went right, he did too. Then, I went left again and Henchoz, he went to buy a hot dog.”
Illicic, though, sent not one defender but two – and a goalkeeper – for a hot dog with an outrageous feint at the Via del Mare.
In January, he hit a free-kick from halfway that caught Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu in no man’s land.
Last September, meanwhile, he played as good a pass as you are ever likely to see, putting Andraz Sporar in behind the Poland defence to score with a ball played from 10 yards inside his own half and with the outside of that wondrous left foot.
It was truly a joy to behold. As the game should be.
Ilicic has long since realised that football is meant to be enjoyed – not taken too seriously.
He now plays with a smile on his face – and is putting one on everyone else’s at a very trying time.
Ilicic may have travelled a long road to get here but, for Bergamo, Italy and football fans in general, he couldn’t have picked a better time to arrive.