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Nearly two months Josip Ilicic was without a trace. A period in which the wildest stories about the Slovenian star player of Atalanta Bergamo circulated. There were even doubts whether he would ever return to the field.
Tonight he'll be back, as his northern Italian club fights Ajax for hibernation in the Champions League. The exact reason for his absence has still not been revealed. And it remains to be seen whether he will be able to make his mark shortly after his return.
"I was sceptical if he could ever get back on level, but now I have much more confidence in him", says trainer Gian Piero Gasperini. "With him, we're a lot stronger."
In everything, 32-year-old Ilicic is the most unpredictable factor within the lines, but the playmaker who made provincial club Atalanta a serious challenger to the established order in Italy. And of Europe, but he did not participate in the final rounds of the Champions League last season.
Full in the race for the prizes, Ilicic disappeared for personal reasons. He would have caught his wife with someone else. Youth traumas would have occurred at the sight of all the suffering in the corona-affected region of Lombardy. After all, as a child, Ilicic fled war in the former Yugoslavia.
Later there were noises that he would suffer from a severe depression. Not for the first time. Two years ago he feared for his life with a severe fever, at a time when his then Fiorentina teammate Davide Astori was dying.
But no matter how melancholy his personal story is outlined, he presents himself so frivolously within the lines. Often also dreamy and nonchalant, but in his later days, under the strict rule of Gasperini, he gets a return from his game with which he can compete with the very biggest.
Illicic is the artist in Atalanta's extremely offensive battle plan, which earned him the nickname 'Il Professore'. "He is just as agile as Lionel Messi, but with a body of 1 meter 90", teammate Marten de Roon described him. "It's a separate player."
"If you're eliminated in such a European tournament, you always keep an eye on how those guys are doing in the next rounds", says De Graaf. "It's good he's finally back here on the highest stage."
And Ilicic still has some reserves for his old age. He's been frugal with his long body. Or was just archers, as some trainers called him.
"With all due respect to Atalanta, but Josip should have played for Juventus, Internazionale or AC Milan", said compatriot Zlatko Zahovic, Slovenia's top scorer of all time. And also the man who gave him a chance as technical director of Maribor on a nice stage.
To the anger of his trainer Gasperini, Hateboer reported at the beginning of this season that the club's rack was out after third place in last season's league. And on top of that, that nice quarterfinal place in the Champions League, partly due to Ilicic's four goals in Valencia.
But quietly the man who can give Atalanta some magic has returned. Thanks to his important goal at Anfield in the match won with Liverpool, Atalanta has enough to win a draw in the Johan Cruijff Arena to stay in the Champions League for the winter.
And that's how he secretly makes all the difference, just as the smallest details at the top can make all the difference.