Valencia 3-4 Atalanta
If ever there was an advert for playing Champions League matches behind closed doors, this was it!
For as a neutral, it’s rare you see contests like this.
Step forward Josip Ilicic, the hero of the hour.
Not content with becoming the oldest player to score an away Champions League hat-trick, aged 32 years and 41 days, he added a fourth with nine minutes remaining to cap a superb individual display and fire Atalanta to the last eight of Europe’s top table.
They have now scored 28 goals in their last seven games and are the first debutants in the competition to reach the last eight since Leicester City three years ago.
What a shame that hardly anyone was in the ground to see it!
Highlights of the game
If ever a Champions League match was over inside three minutes, this was also it.
For that is how long it took Atalanta to score, meaning the home side needed four goals simply to draw level.
And so, in what was already a strange atmosphere – with the match being played behind closed doors in an effort to contain the spread of coronavirus – became even stranger for those of a home allegiance.
This was a further humbling for the hosts who lost the first leg 4-1 as the Italians, who are most unlikely of qualifiers for the last 16, easily secured their place in next week’s quarter-final draw.
It is a wonderful story and long may it continue.
Three minutes in and Atalanta were in front as Ilicic was fouled in the box by Mouctar Diakhaby before picking himself up and steering the spot-kick into the net.
Kevin Gameiro pulled one back, capitalising on some poor defending to fire home a 21st minute equaliser. But it was Atalanta who went in front again just before the break.
Again, it was Ilicic and again it was a penalty.
Again, Diakhaby was the culprit as he was adjudged to have handled the ball in the area and Ilicic kept his cool from 12 yards.
The action continued into the second period as Valencia clawed their way back again.
Just a minute after Atalanta midfielder Remo Freuler struck the crossbar with a long-range effort, impressive goal-getter Gameiro lost his marker and headed home a Ferran Torres cross.
Midway through the half, the hosts actually led as stand-in visiting goalkeeper Marco Sportiello came out to clear a Daniel Parejo through ball but was beaten to it by Torres who clipped a deft lob over his head and into the net.
There was never going to be any miraculous comeback, however, and if to prove the point Ilicic claimed his hat-trick and the match ball just moments later with a left footed shot following a quick counter-attack.
Still he wasn’t finished as he added his fourth with a left footed shot into the top left corner.
It was the best of the lot and Atalanta were dreamland.
This was their 11th goal in just two games.
Many of Europe’s big boys can take note of the approach and attitude displayed by Gian Piero Gasperini and his players.
The first time I recall hearing about Atalanta was 33 years ago when they played the Welsh minnows Merthyr Tydfil in Europe.
While they prevailed on that occasion, the Italians actually lost the first leg – a result which caused surprise and delight throughout parts of Britain.
This side, fourth in Serie A this term and finalists in last season’s Coppa Italia, are a very different outfit though and are going places.
Watch out for these Champions League post highlights and you’ll see why.
This was the first hat-trick by a Slovenian player in the Champions League. Only Cristiano Ronaldo (13) has scored as many goals as Ilicic (13) in all competitions in 2020 among the Serie A players.
Gameiro is the first player to score for three different Spanish teams in the Champions League (Sevilla – 1, Atlético Madrid – 3, Valencia, 2).
Around 2,000 Los Che fans went to the Mestalla Stadium before kick-off to show their support for the home players.
Only 250 people were allowed to attend the game, including media representatives, club employees, and security staff.
Valencia have given away six penalties in the Champions League since the beginning of last season, the most of any side.
Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, all Serie A matches for the remainder of March have been postponed and the club is not due in domestic action again until their visit to Cagliari on April 4.
Valencia host Levante on Saturday March 14 before travelling to Real Madrid in La Liga the following weekend.
VISIT OUR BLOG TO GET YOUR FIX FOR ALL OF THE MOST CURRENT FOOTBALL NEWS STORIES & FEATURES