Bologna clinch Champions League qualification: Why Serie A’s upstart should

After an incredible and exciting season, Bologna are now officially qualified and will play Champions League soccer during the 2024-25 season. After Atalanta’s win over AS Roma on Sunday, the side coached by Thiago Motta could celebrate around the streets of the Italian city afterr the unexpected success that will see Bologna playing in Europe’s prermier club competition for the first time since 1965.

The question now is can Bologna replicate their season? Can they take their unexpected success and durably turn themselves into a team that’s competitive at the highest levels? The answer is yes, here’s why.

Even if this was singular season to remember for Bologna fans, and one that was completely unexpected, it wasn’t a coincidence. Bologna started to work years ago to reach this level. Joey Saputo, the Canadian businessman who is also the owner of the MLS side CF Montreal, acquired the Italian team back in 2014, and became the sole owner one year later. Under Saputo, Bologna were never relegated to the Italian second division, but also never qualified for any European tournament until this season.

Saputo, without making promises to the fans, worked on his vision step by step. First of all, he created a team that was stable enough to play Serie A soccer every season. He worked with some of the best sport directors of Italian football, such as Walter Sabatini who became the Head of Football in 2019, with his tenure lasting until 2021. But the success arrived with another great mind of Italian soccer, Giovanni Sartori, who previously worked at Chievo and most notably at Atalanta. He signed with Bologna before the summer of 2022 with a clear target to improve the team and possibly repeat the success he had at Atalanta, where he brought the team to the European competitions multiple times. Thanks to his ability to find young talents around the world, and also his way of dealing with players in the transfer market, he quickly improved the team, mixing some young talents with players with more experience.

During the 2023-24 season, only Serie A winners Inter did better than Bologna in terms of numbers. Bologna currently have the second best defense of the league (27 goals conceded), five defeats (Inter only had two) and are fully in the race to end up in third place behind the same Inter and AC Milan. This was only possible to the work of coach Thiago Motta, who transformed his team since he was appointed in September 2022.

Before Bologna, Motta only coached the PSG academy, Genoa (where he was sacked after 10 games) and did well at Spicesaving the team from relegation during the 2021-22 season. Despite the interests of many European clubs, like PSG for example, where Motta is deeply appreciated by president Nasser Al-Khelaifi himself, he decided to start a new adventure at Bologna. It’s gone so well that there will be many suitors. Juventusin particular, are looking for a new manager and saw in Thiago Motta the perfect profile to start a new cycle if current manager Massimiliano Allegri does not return.

Whatever happens with Motta and Bologna, he was able to improve players to make them ready to play European soccer. Play, Joshua Zirkzee, Riccardo OrsoliniDan Ndoye, Riccardo Calafiori, Stefan Posch and more. Motta saw the potential in these players and was able to put them in the condition to show it. Zirkzee, for instance, has scored 11 Serie A goals so far, while last season he only scored two. His improvement and quality of football played were one of the main reasons of the success of Bologna this year.

Players and managers can come and go, but Bologna now have a vision. It wasn’t an easy job and took some time but now it’s there. While it’s true that if we want to compare Bologna with Atalanta where Sartori worked before, the fact that the coach Gian Piero Gasperini has been in charge there since 2016 helped the club to build year after year. With Motta’s likely departure, it will be interesting what kind of manager will be in charge of the team next season, and what kind of consequences it will have on the team. But Bologna fans can now count on a solid project that is guided by a person who knows what to do.

Last, but not least, let’s not forget Sinisa Mihajlovic, the former Bologna coached who sadly passed away in 2022. Bologna fans and players loved him, and played for him when he was fighting against leukemia and was still in charge of the job. The spirit of this team comes from that experience and his spell at the club. This is why team star Riccardo Orsolini immediately remembered him after the Champions League’s qualification became official. Orsolini said to DAZN: “I can’t hide it. When the Atalanta game ended, he was the first one who came up in my mind. He transmitted his attitude to us, he created the bases for this.”

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