In what is an amazing underdog story from this season’s Champions League edition, Atalanta became the first team to book a place in the Quarter-Finals of the competition.
A 4-3 win over Valencia in an empty Mestalla Stadium was all that was needed for the Bergamo club to make history.
This was the first time since Leicester City in 2017 that a team that made its Champions League debut would go to the last eight of the competition. La Dea has been playing some really attractive football throughout the campaign and, under Gian Piero Gasperini, it has become a treat to watch.
Josip Ilicic was the man of the hour with the veteran Slovenian striker scoring four goals in the game, thus becoming only the fourth player to have scored a haul in a Champions League game. His left-footed effort that ended in the top left corner, rounded off a comprehensive 8-4 win for a team that has now scored 28 goals in the last 7 outings in all competitions.
The game was played inside an empty stadium in order to contain the spread of coronavirus. Except for that one fan – a statue of immortalized Vicente Navarro following his tragic death back in 2017.
The Mestalla will never be truly empty.— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 10, 2020
The statue of Vicente Navarro will be the sole spectator tonight as Valencia host Atalanta…
Navarro lost his sight in his 50s but still attended every game until he passed away, so the club made sure he would never miss another one 🙏 pic.twitter.com/imQ8S2rmEf
Following a 4-1 hammering of Los Che at home, a tough tie was expected at the Mestalla. And indeed, the Spaniards seemed to be up for a battle. Judging by how previous second legs of Champions League knockout stages have panned out, there was always the possibility for a remarkable turnaround.
However, Atalanta stayed professional throughout the game and ensured that Valencia’s goals were answered on a regular basis.
A Slap In Agnelli’s Face
The win over Valencia and the consequent place in the last eight were even more important given the recent rant delivered by Juventus president Andrea Agnelli.
The Juventus supremo is not a huge fan of non-traditional teams playing in the Champions League which is why he is pushing for a European Super League with an NFL-style structure so that the richer keep getting richer while mid-table, hardworking clubs stay confined in the nether regions of football.
While speaking at the FT Business of Football Summit in London, Agnelli used the example of Atalanta as a club that isn’t financially contributing much to the game. He took a pot shot at the club’s history and even questioned the rules that let every club have a fair chance to playing in Europe’s most prestigious club competition.
And while Agnelli continued his rant, he completely forgot the fact that as long as fans (watching outside the stadium despite the stadium ban) continue watching the game and supporting stories such as Atalanta’s, the game’s soul would remain intact.
In Italy, clubs that haven’t won much in their history are always looked at in a different light. For instance, when Frosinone and Carpi were in line for Serie A promotion back in the 2014-15 season, Lazio president Claudio Lotito bemoaned the fact that these two teams joining Italy’s elite were not worth the trouble.
Atalanta Leading The Way For Underdogs
Traditional powerhouses in Italy have always looked at teams such as Atalanta with a lot of prejudice, which is why last night’s historic win in Spain gives all the more reason for the minnows throughout Italian football to dream big.
While they might not go all the way, Atalanta managed to do something few Italian clubs have achieved in the last few years and they have done so with the swagger of a team that is oozing confidence.
One for Bergamo
Following the game, Gian Piero Gasperini dedicated the game to the people of Bergamo, a city which lies in the region most severely affected by the corona epidemic. Life has come to a standstill in Italy and games are being suspended, so the value of such wins in testing times can never be undersold.
These are difficult times for Italian people, football and especially the mid-table clubs. Atalanta’s heartwarming adventure in Europe is going to at least give the people something to look forward to.
March 10, 2020 – Champions League 2019-20 Round of 16
SCORER: 3′ Ilicic (A, pen.), 21′ Gameiro (V), 45′ Ilicic (A, pen.), 52′ Gameiro (V), 68′ Ferran Torres (V), 72′ Ilicic (A), 82′ Ilicic (A)
|VALENCIA (4-4-2): Cillessen; Wass, Diakhaby (45′ Goncalo Guedes), Coquelin (75′ Cheryshev), Gayà; Ferran Torres, Kondogbia, Parejo, Soler; Rodrigo (80′ Florenzi), Gameiro. (Domenech, Lee, Sobrino, Guillamon) Coach: Celades|
|ATALANTA (3-4-1-2): Sportiello; Djimsiti, Caldara, Palomino; Hateboer, De Roon (45′ Zapata), Freuler, Gosens; Pasalic (84′ Tamèze); Gomez (79′ Malinovskyi), Ilicic (Rossi, Czyborra, Muriel, Castagne) Coach: Gasperini|
REFEREE: Hategan (Romania)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Coquelin, Diakhaby, Kondogbia, Wass (V), Freuler (A; Extra Time: 1st Half 3′, 2nd Half 2′