Resilient Atalanta look to continue European adventure against mighty Real Madrid in Champions League
One year on from their win over Valencia that proved 'a ticking time-bomb' in coronavirus outbreak, Italian side look forward to last-16 clash with Los Blancos
When the busses transporting the players of the European Cup’s most successful club draw up to the Stadio di Bergamo on Wednesday, those inside will see before them a monument to resistance.
For the visit of Real Madrid, upwardly-mobile Atalanta’s arena will be hosting, for the first time, a knockout tie in the Champions League. The city of Bergamo will be marking a sobering anniversary.
Just over a year ago, Atalanta, in their debut season in Europe’s principal club competition, ‘hosted’ Valencia at the last-16 stage. The inexperience of the Italian club in Europe made the Spaniards clear favourites.
Atalanta’s home, the Stadio di Bergamo, did not then have a Uefa licence, and so San Siro was borrowed. For the historic knockout match against Valencia, 40,000-odd travelled the hour or so to Milan.
They would witness what was judged the greatest night in the club’s history – Atalanta 4 Valencia 1. But they would also be part of what the mayor of Bergamo later called “a ticking time-bomb”.
In the following days, the first Covid-19 cases were registered in the Bergamo region. By April, the city’s cemetery was turning away coffins for lack of burial space and Bergamo recording the highest number of excess fatalities in Europe.
The theory took hold that the mass movement of people to and from Milan for the match had exacerbated the outbreak, and even accelerated the virus’s spread into Spain, through those who had travelled to northern Italy to follow Valencia.
A year on, Atalanta are providing solace to a city that suffered early and horribly from the pandemic. They made sure their Champions League adventure was not a one-off.
After the 2020 lockdown, the Atalanta players came within a minute of reaching the semi-finals, beaten by Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in their quarter-final, having been ahead until the 90th minute. In Serie A they again finished in the top four, ahead of a clutch of bigger, richer clubs.
Their reward has been another run to the European Cup knockouts, via group stage wins over Ajax and Liverpool, the latter a tribute to Atalanta’s stoicism. They lost 5-0 to the English champions three weeks before beating them 2-0 at Anfield.
Amid the grief for those citizens, including ex-Atlanta players and many supporters, taken by coronavirus, Bergamo takes pride in its resilience, its reputation as a hardy, industrious place. Its football club fits that image.
Atalanta punch over their weight, shrewdly run, and studious nurturers of talent. They have brought in close to €400 million from the sale of players since 2015, the latest gem to return a huge profit being Amad Diallo, the 18-year-old whose transfer to Manchester United could eventually yield €40m.
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Diallo had made only a handful of appearances for a dynamic, free-scoring Atalanta. Papu Gomez, meanwhile, was a centrepiece of their soaring success, but after a fallout with manager Gian Piero Gasperini, he left in January for Sevilla. Resilient Atalanta have borne his absence, 23-year-old Matteo Pessina proving a dynamic alternative.
The goals keep flowing, too, three past both AC Milan and Torino in the last month and six past Napoli, across league and Cup, in the space of 11 days. There is enough depth in the squad that Luis Muriel, the Colombian striker, is the top scorer – and his typical starting position is on the bench.
Madrid would envy that sort of back-up. They arrived in Bergamo with nine senior players, including Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard and Dani Carvajal, ruled out with injury.
“I don’t pay much attention to the talk about their players who are missing,” said Gasperini. “In the Champions League Madrid always step up, and the Madrid I’ve watched in the last few Liga matches have been really efficient.”
Zinedine Zidane’s team are on a run of four straight wins, and the defence of their domestic title is very much alive, since they closed the gap behind Liga-leaders Atletico Madrid to three points at the weekend.
“We are not the favourites,” added Gasperini, “but this is a chance to measure ourselves, play with freedom and without pressure.
"We’ve held our own against Manchester City and Liverpool in recent seasons, and although sometimes we find it hard to get into rhythm in these sorts of matches, we always grow as a team.”
Published: February 24, 2021 07:13 AM