For the past four years, Atalanta have consistently defied expectations. Just when you thought Gian Piero Gasperini had taken this provincial club as far as they could as possibly go, he took them further. All the while playing an electrifying brand of football that has made them one of the most watchable sides in Europe.
In the pre-Gasperini era, Atalanta were an unexciting mid-table club, vastly overshadowed by their Milanese rivals just 40 kilometres down the road. Now they’re a regular fixture in Serie A’s top-four and have just had their best league season yet; finishing third with a club-record 78 points, scoring 98 goals in the process, the third-highest out of Europe’s top-five leagues.
Their tendency to defy expectations has extended to the Champions League too. Many thought Atalanta weren’t cut out for the competition when they lost their first three group stage games, but two wins and a draw in their following three fixtures ensured their place in the knockout stages.
There, they treated viewers to the kind of performances that Serie A fans were lucky enough to see nearly every week, beating Valencia 8-4 over two legs to qualify for the quarter-final, where they were drawn against one of the richest sides in football: Paris Saint-Germain. A team whose star player, Neymar, earns as much as Atalanta’s entire squad put together.
Given their status as a team known for defying the odds - along with a variety of other factors - there is actually a fair degree of optimism that Atalanta can beat PSG. Their recent performances are an obvious factor; La Dea have won nine of their 13 games post-restart, playing with the amount of swagger you’d expect such an in-form team to have.
What plays to Atalanta’s advantage the most, however, is the fact that Paris Saint-Germain head into this game with a few weaknesses. The first is psychological. Les Parisiens infamously underperform in the Champions League, having never advanced past the quarter-finals since their Qatari takeover in 2011. Having said that, they’ve had an excellent European campaign so far, but their high-earning players will be feeling the pressure to go further than they have done before.
The second weakness is a physical one. With Ligue 1 brought to a premature close in April, Paris Saint-Germain have played just two competitive fixtures since March and while they have played a few friendlies, they will be nowhere near as match-fit as Atalanta, who’ve had a month and a half of high-level football. Unlike Roma and Juventus, they also had time to rest and recuperate after the end of the Serie A season.
PSG’s biggest weakness, however, is that they’ll be without some of their key players. Angel Di Maria, who has contributed five assists in the Champions League thus far, is suspended, while Marco Verratti is injured. Meanwhile, top-scorer Kylian Mbappé is unlikely to be making more than a cameo appearance after his ankle injury last month.
That isn’t to say that Paris Saint-Germain don’t have the edge over Atalanta. Their squad, boasting the likes of Neymar and Mauro Icardi, is far better on paper, while the Italians will have to make do without top scorer Josip Ilicic and first-choice goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini.
Regardless, there wouldn’t be that much surprise if Atalanta were to beat Paris Saint-Germain and progress to the semi-final. After all, these past four years have taught us never to underestimate La Dea.
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