Atalanta travel to Valencia to play their return leg of the last 16 in the Champions League behind closed doors amid fears of the coronavirus. But an empty Mestalla could help La Dea by the fact that it will only be 11 against 11 on the pitch in Spain. The fans can’t push Los Che towards an incredible comeback and if Valencia were to bounce back from a 4-1 defeat at San Siro, they would go against all expectations. But isn’t that what La Dea have already done?
Gian Piero Gasperini was struggling to get going when first appointed in 2016, but President Antonio Percassi stood by him and believed in the project. When the Bergamaschi steamrolled their Spanish opponents in the first leg last month, the fans witnessed an historic moment and history in the making for a club that has always been drained for talent in almost every transfer market.
The sustainability in the Atalanta academy has made the big clubs chase down the talent produced in Bergamo even before they break through on the first team – look at Dejan Kulusevski’s transfer to Juventus this season.
And most remarkably, Gasperini has been able to create a team that are willing to fight for the Nerazzurri colours despite being paid pennies compared to the other teams participating among the elite of European football. Nobody gave them a chance in the same group as Manchester City, but they could be on their way to the quarter-finals, where Champions League betting offers can turn small winnings into bigger prizes.
And with such a run in the Champions League this term, after arguably having opened the eyes of the big clubs on the continent through their previous performances in the Europa League, they could get robbed by foreign clubs alike going forward.
Gasperini almost seems arrogant when he claims La Dea “wanted to prove themselves” after their first appearance in the knockout stages of the prestigious tournament. The horrible start in the group stage is all but forgotten and they have confidently run ragged most of their opponents in Serie A lately. Atalanta don’t really care for defending, even against the most talented of oppositions and are showing great confidence in their performances.
But their current obstacle have great experience in Europe and Atalanta must convince once again after letting an away goal halter the celebrations a tad. Valencia star Dani Parejo has already warned them that Los Che have previously proven to respond and bounce back from similar difficulties.
But it will be tough for the home side if Hans Hateboer and Josip Ilicic follow up on their performances from the first leg. Those were the two players who really stood out, with Hateboer scoring a brace and officially voted Man of the Match by UEFA, whilst Ilicic arguably played his best game in Europe since his arrival in Bergamo (even better than his performance in the 3-2 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League in 2018), also scoring his first goal in the competition with a lovely curler from outside of the box.
Duvan Zapata was benched in the first tie and Ilicic linked up with Mario Pasalic and Papu Gomez in attack, but the Colombian, who has been out injured for most part of the season, responded with a hat-trick against Lecce in Serie A during an impressive 7-2 win last weekend, making sure Gasp’s luxury problem will provide a thumping headache ahead of the decider in the round of 16.
Ilicic and Gomez helped tear open the Valencia defence in Milan and with Zapata implemented in a trio against Lecce, they looked unstoppable. Have in mind that they also have a joker in Luis Muriel, who has scored 13 goals in 22 Serie A games and already contributed with a goal in the Champions League this term.
Gasperini is right, though, because the Dea have proved themselves time after time and have established themselves among the top teams in Italy. But we are still talking about them as a surprise.
Captain Alejandro Gomez claimed it would be so incredible that he would “jump in a parachute” if the Orobici qualify for the semi-finals of the Champions League this term and he knows how dangerous it could be to take for granted that Valencia are already beaten and to look beyond three games of the competition. The sensible arrogance with a mixture of confidence and humility could be the key, because nothing seems impossible for the Orobici.