Atalanta aim to continue European adventure in Champions League despite nationwide restrictions in Italy
Serie A surprise packages attempt to secure their quarter-final spot at an empty Mestalla on Tuesday
The finest standard-bearers for the well-being of the Champions League as a tournament that can still refresh and surprise are in danger of vanishing from view.
Because of the public health crisis across their country, the Italian city of Bergamo is subject to severe restrictions.
Its pioneering footballers will on Tuesday set about making history with scarcely any direct witnesses. Atalanta’s last-16 tie against Valencia, in Spain, is to be played behind closed doors, doors bolted with an unusually firm lock.
Reporters were told that even attendance at pre-match press conferences or the match itself would be severely restricted. Fans are wholly excluded.
In normal circumstances, the Mestalla, Valencia’s steep-sided home, generates some of the most vibrant atmospheres in the sport on a big night like this one should be. The eeriness will be striking.
What will be more audible are the cries and shouts between players, the sounds of complicity and fluent dialogue that Atalanta have cultivated and at times perfected in the last 18 months.
Television viewers may even make out the nicknames, as passes are fed, slick and accurate between the likes of skipper ‘Papu’ Gomez, and ‘Nonna’, the gifted midfielder Josip Ilicic. Ilicic is ‘Nonna’ – ‘grandmother’ in Italian – because at 32, he is among the senior men in the squad, and often, his colleagues joke, liable to complain about physical aches and strains.
Theirs is a cheery soundtrack, even if the spoken Italian is not always perfect. Atalanta are a squad drawn from across Europe, with a couple of influential Dutchmen, such as Marten de Roon and Hans Hateboer, a Swiss, Remo Freuler, a German, Robin Gosens, and the Slovenian Ilicic.
There’s a cadre of South Americans, such as Gomez, the Argentinian in his sixth season with Atalanta, and Duvan Zapata, the Colombian whose 23 Serie A goals last season pushed Atalanta into the top four and into their first Champions League group phase.
None of those are exactly household names. Part of Atalanta's secret is their novelty, and their hunger.
And as they prepare themselves for creating their own ambience in a vacated Valencia arena, they are as well set as any club to reach the quarter-finals of club football’s most elevated competition. Atalanta hold a stunning 4-1 advantage from the Bergamo leg of the tie.
The temptation is to liken them to the Ajax of a year ago, the uninhibited outsiders who beat Real Madrid and then defeated Juventus in a tournament that looks more and like the property of an elite establishment bent on building ever higher barriers to trespassers.
This season’s last 16, for the first time in Champions League history, is made up only of clubs from the wealthiest five European leagues.
The quirk is that Italy’s trio of contestants are Juventus, as expected, Napoli, who have been on the rise for a while, and not Inter Milan or AC Milan but a group of provincial upstarts who last November could barely imagine coming this far.
Atalanta lost their first three group games. They looked disastrously out of their depth. They lost 4-0 at Dinamo Zagreb and were thrashed 5-1 by Manchester City.
Their first ‘home’ game – played at San Siro in Milan for its bigger capacity than their Bergamo ground – to Shakhtar Donetsk was a study in faulty game management.
As at City, they took a lead and could not protect it. They also had a penalty saved and Shahktar’s winner, for 2-1, came in stoppage time.
“I really admire their bravery,” City manager, Pep Guardiola, said of Atalanta counterpart Gian Piero Gasperini, a 62-year-old with a long track record of not compromising flair for functionalism. Others just labelled them naive.
The uptick since November has been captivating. Having come back from Raheem Sterling’s early strike to hold City to a 1-1 draw in Milan, Atalanta picked up their first and second victories in the Champions League.
They found that seven points was sufficient to scrape into the knockout phase, where the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain quietly hoped they would be drawn against Gasperini’s gung-ho underdogs.
Valencia felt they had an accessible opponent. But once Valencia began studying Atalanta they grew alarmed.
In Serie A, Atalanta have scored at least five goals in four of their last nine games, including a 5-0 walloping of AC Milan, a 7-0 at Torino and a 7-2 whirligig against Lecce nine days ago.
“We don’t put any limits on ourselves,” says skipper Gomez. Through the travel restrictions, the crowd bans, the anxiety spreading across their region, Atalanta hope the adventure continues, and brings some local joy in tough times.
Updated: March 10, 2020 10:10 AM