What a Pity, Atalanta! PSG Comeback Pushes Them Out of UCL

Atalanta’s dream is over and it ended in a brutal way. For 89 minutes, La Dea lived the dream of toppling European giants Paris Saint-Germain in the first match of the Champions League Final Eight in Lisbon.

Gian Piero Gasperini’s side went ahead with Mario Pasalic in the 26th minute and defended their lead to the death but ultimately saw the Parisiens coming back as they run out of fuel in the tank and the class of players like Neymar and Kylian Mbappé made the difference.

A lethal one-two powered by Marquinhos and Eric Maxim Chopo-Mouting in the final minutes set the score at 2-1 and sent PSG into the Semi-Finals of the top European competition for the first time since 1995 – breaking a drought that was starting to become a real obsession in Paris, as never had the French side managed to go past the Quarter-Finals since president Nasser Al-Khelaifi bought them and raised them to the level of a European powerhouse.

Atalanta thus bowed out of the Champions League with many regrets. Some would say they leave with their heads held high, but what will be left in Bergamo of this historical night at the Estadio da Lúz will be the bitter taste of a wasted chance. Because the Bergamaschi‘s lead for most of the game didn’t happen by chance: Atalanta played as a real team does.

Gasperini’s Nerazzurri assaulted the French side with the same aggressiveness they showed in Serie A but were also able to switch the game tempo in the second half – when they realized that preserving their lead was better than attacking all out like they are used to do domestically. The plan worked for 89 minutes until weariness and superior skills turned the odds in favor of the French.

Atalanta-PSG was a real battle where the Bergamaschi did not fall short at all against their much more famous opponents

In any case, the game at the Estadio da Lúz lived up to the hype despite some important absences on both sides: Atalanta couldn’t count on Josep Ilicic, who has been battling with depression these past few weeks, and on starting goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini because of a knee injury.

Injuries and match-bans also crippled Thomas Tuchel’s side as the German coach had to leave home Angel Di Maria, Marco Verratti, and Layvin Kurzawa – on top of free-agent Edinson Cavani – but managed to have his crown jewel Kylian Mbappé at least on the bench. That would prove decisive in the long run.

The beginning was sparkling as expected: Two minutes into the game, a fast service by Atalanta’s Duvan Zapata prompted Alejandro Gomez to shot only to see the ball blocked by Keylor Navas. Much bigger was Neymar’s chance immediately after, but O Ney ominously wasted it after going one-on-one with substitute goalkeeper Marco Sportiello at the end of a fast break.

Atalanta attacked with no fear and created a new chance in the 10th minute as Gomez found Hans Hateboer in the box with a perfectly-timed cross. It took some great goalkeeping on the part of Navas to push away the Dutchman’s header. One more minute and Navas had to go above and beyond again to stop Remo Freuler’s header as PSG found themselves suffering in dead ball situations.

The Bergamaschi, on the other hand, appeared vulnerable to counterattacks – good for them that Neymar didn’t seem to be in his best night as he spilled another good chance in the 18th minute, failing to serve Mauro Icardi on the far post after running all along the left flank.

Mario Pasalic celebrates with his Atalanta teammates after breaking the deadlock with PSG with a beautiful curl

Atalanta kept doing what brought them to Serie A third spot in the table: Fast play, pressing, and no fear at all despite facing a much more famous opponent. Taking the lead looked like a natural consequence, which materialized when Mario Pasalic powered a brilliant left-foot curl making the best out of a Duvan Zapata pass.

Neymar started to adjust his aim and his next shot ended dangerously close to Sportiello’s right post. A free-kick in the 35th minutes also hit the goal target but was easily defused by Marco Sportiello.

Four minutes before the break, Hateboer attempted a suicidal back pass that was easily read by the Brazilian star who went for another shot – this time failing miserably. Neymar collected at least three clear chances in the first half but was oddly ineffective. Still better than his fellow colleagues Pablo Sanabria and Mauro Icardi, who were almost invisible for the full first period.

In the second half, both teams necessarily slowed down. Atalanta changed their skin switching from a fast-paced style of play to breaking their opponents’ tempo with multiple fouls which ultimately earned them six yellow cards. Not beautiful to see, but surely effective. Neymar was isolated and prevented from playing his football as he continued to be PSG’s most dangerous weapon despite his bad aim.

Neymar in despair after missing an easy chance. The Brazilian’s aim was quite poor last night but he still proved decisive as he served the decisive pass for PSG’s late equalizer

Then, being one goal down and with thirty minutes to go, Tuchel played his trump card as he sent in Kylian Mbappé. Gian Piero Gasperini replied immediately by adding Ruslan Malinovskyi to the mix, pulling out El Papu Gomez. Later in the game, he also substituted goal-scorer Pasalic with Luis Muriel.

Tuchel’s next moves were adding Julien Draxler and Leandro Paredes in the 71st minute. Right after setting foot on the pitch, Paredes ignited Mbappé whose progression from the left side was providentially stopped by Sportiello. The German then made his last change deploying Eric Maxim Chopo-Mouting in place of Mauro Icardi – another change that would prove decisive.

Paris Saint-Germain went for the final assault and started to challenge Sportiello more often with some Mbappé and Neymar attempts which however didn’t scare the Nerazzurri too much. Atalanta defended to the death – the perfect image being Remo Freuler who fell victim to cramps but couldn’t be substituted as Gasperini had already made five changes.

But the Nerazzurri had used all their energies and didn’t have it anymore. In the end, PSG’s class made the difference and turned the tables in the space of three minutes. Marquinhos flipped the ball past Sportiello from a Neymar service to break Atalanta’s dream and then, three minutes into stoppage time, Mbappé’s umpteenth progression from the left side provided his teammate Choupo-Moting with a ball that only had to be pushed in the back of the net.

It was over. The curtain fell on Atalanta’s epic adventure, but the Bergamaschi will come back to hear the Champions League tune in just a few months, hoping to prove that this season’s fantastic exploit didn’t happen by chance.

Neymar and match-winner Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting celebrate at full time. PSG made it to the Champions League Semi-Finals but overcoming Atalanta was anything but a stroll in the part for the French side


August 12, 2020 – Champions League 2019-20 Quarter-Finals

SCORERS: 26′ Pasalic (A), 90′ Marquinhos (P), 93′ Choupo-Moting (P)

ATALANTA (3-4-2-1): Sportiello; Toloi, Caldara, Djimsiti (58′ Palomino); Hateboer, De Roon, Freuler, Gosens (81′ Castagne); Gomez (58′ Malinovskyi), Pasalic (69′ Muriel); Zapata (81′ Da Riva) (Rossi, Gelmi, Sutalo, Bellanova, Czyborra, Colley, Piccoli) Coach: Gasperini
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN (4-3-3): Navas (79′ Rico); Kehrer, Thiago Silva, Kimpembe, Bernat; Herrera (71′ Draxler), Marquinhos, Gueye (71′ Paredes); Sarabia (59′ Mbappé), Icardi (79’Choupo-Moting), Neymar (Bulka, Diallo, Bakker, Kalimuendo-Muinga, Dagba, Ruiz-Atil, Mbe Soh) Coach: Tuchel

REFEREE: Taylor (England)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Djimsiti, Freuler, De Roon, Zapata, Toloi, Palomino (A), Bernat, Herrera, Marquinhos, Paredes (P); Extra Time: First Half 1′, Second Half 5′