Gasperini could return to haunt Inter in battle for Europe

MILAN (Reuters) - Inter Milan face a crunch match in the race for European places on Sunday when they take on an Atalanta team led by a coach they infamously sacked after only five games.

Gian Piero Gasperini has resurrected his career since his humiliating experience just over five years ago and turned modest Atalanta, a team usually found in the middle to lower half of the table, into unlikely contenders for a Europa League place.

Only the fourth and fifth placed teams in Serie A are guaranteed a place in the following season's Europa League while a top three finish is needed for the Champions League.

Atalanta, who have only played in Europe four times before, are fifth with 52 points, with Inter one point and one place below them.

Gasperini was hired by Inter before the start of the 2011/12 but sacked after losing four out of his first five matches. It was the only time the 59-year-old has coached at any of the major Italian clubs.

"A while back I had an important chance with Inter but it didn't end well," he told Sky Sport Italia. "I have no resentment regarding my short time."

Since then, he has had two stints with Palermo - the second lasting just two matches - and three seasons with Genoa before moving to Atalanta, based in the historic northern city of Bergamo, for this season.

As at Inter, Gasperini made a slow start at Atalanta, also losing four of his first give games.

But unlike Inter, the club kept faith in him and the coach responded by boldly offering a chance to some untried players from the youth team.

Central defender Mattia Caldara, 22, was given his first Serie A start while Roberto Gagliardini, another 22-year-old, was brought into midfield along with 19-year-old Franck Kessie.

The move paid off handsomely as Atalanta won eight out of nine league games to race up the table.

Caldara scored both goals in the 2-0 win at Napoli two weeks ago, when Atalanta fielded a team with an average age of under 25, while Gagliardini impressed so much that he was loaned to Inter themselves.

Kessie, meanwhile, has interest from several English Premier League clubs, according to Italian media reports.

Inter lost 1-0 away to Atalanta earlier in the season, a result which contributed to coach Frank de Boer being sacked after only 85 days.

Replacement Stefano Pioli has overseen an improvement although Inter are still falling well short of the expectations for such a big club.

“Inter are a strong team with good players. With Pioli they’ve found the right organisation, they are compact and they are getting important results," said Gasperini.

"This match is a chance for Atalanta to cap an extraordinary season."

(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Alison Williams)