Even in a season as difficult as this one, Everton’s 2017/18 Europa League campaign is one they will quickly want to forget. The Toffees struggled from the outset, with Atalanta taking full advantage of their weaknesses in the opening game of the group stage back in September.
Just before half-time, Andrea Petagna held off three defenders to roll the ball across the box, his pass perfectly weighted as Bryan Cristante barged forward into the box and, after an excellent first touch, lifted a crisp finish beyond Maarten Stekelenburg.
That made it 3-0 to the Italian side and capped an excellent performance from the goal scorer, who dominated the game from his position in central midfield. Looking calm and assured, he would make sure that Everton fans would not forget his name when the two teams met again at Goodison Park a few weeks later.
In that November clash, Cristante was everywhere. Fielded as part of a five-man unit in coach Gian Piero Gasperini’s 3-5-2 formation, he was confident that holding midfielder Marten de Roon could hold the fort and rampaged into the opposition half time after time. There were just 12 minutes on the clock when Ashley Williams failed to clear Timothy Castagne’s cross, and Cristante was on hand to prod it home from close range.
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The 23-year-old’s runs into the box caused the former Swansea City defender problems all night, and it was the Welsh skipper who clattered into him again shortly after, only for Papu Gomez to miss the resultant penalty. Undeterred, Cristante found a way to double Atalanta’s lead himself, out jumping Williams at the near post to head the ball home.
After the midfielder was substituted in the 82nd minute, his team ran riot, eventually recording a 5-1 victory that was the worst suffered by an English club in this competition since Nottingham Forest lost to Bayern Munich by the same scoreline back in 1996. There was little doubt that Cristante was the star of the show however, laying on two clear chances for a team-mate, connecting with 75 per cent of his passes while registering three ball recoveries and one interception along the way.
There may have only been 17,000 people at Goodison that evening, but it seems there were plenty of other observers paying attention to the performance of the Atalanta midfielder. Widespread reports in England have discussed Arsenal, Liverpool, West Ham United and Watford as potential buyers for Cristante, who will earn a net salary of just €500,000 this season.
Obviously the Premier League sides will be able to offer a drastic increase on that figure, while Atalanta are set to make a major profit on the player should they decide to sell him this summer. Cristante joined the Bergamo-based outfit on loan from Benfica in January last year, with an agreed purchase price set at just €4million which they will activate once the campaign comes to an end.
According to Italian newspaper Mattia Caldara, already enjoy a solid working relationship with Atalanta.
Cristante has shown throughout this season that his displays against Everton were far from isolated flashes, looking like a vastly different player to the raw teenager who first moved to Portugal.
A product of the AC Milan academy, he had already shown his quality to the Rossoneri, as his then-manager Max Allegri noted at a press conference earlier this month when his current side Juventus faced Atalanta. “I thought he could become a big player, otherwise I would not have let him play and make his debut,” the Bianconeri boss said of Cristante. “He is a goal-scorer, he makes assists, he can play in different roles.”
Those Everton games offer a perfect snapshot of those abilities, showcasing his desire to drive his team forward, his 6ft 1” (1.86m) frame allowing him to cover ground quickly as he runs from box to box. His 35 appearances this term have yielded 11 goals, while statistics show that Cristante has connected with 78.8 per cent of his 51.9 pass attempts per 90 minutes.
With time and a little more experience, that completion rate will surely rise as he cuts out the poor decision-making he is occasionally guilty of, but like many youngsters under Gasperini’s guidance, he is already vastly improved in that regard. Defensively, Cristante works hard to make tackles in opposition territory, possessing the determination, desire and energy to play a high-tempo pressing style for long periods.
That makes him an ideal acquisition for some of those aforementioned clubs, and the man himself seems acutely aware of both the interest from England and how well he might adapt to that style of football. “My summer market will depend on the next five months with Atalanta,” Cristante told Corriere della Sera back in January. “I can’t rule out a move to the Premier League though, I like it and I think it would suit my technical and physical qualities.”
It certainly does, and given Atalanta’s position as club that provides a constant stream of talent as a way of generating revenue, Cristante could well follow former team-mates Roberto Gagliardini, Franck Kessié and Caldara to one of Europe’s bigger clubs when the transfer window opens once again.