Valencia vs Atalanta
If you predicted the first leg result of this Champions League last 16 tie, I don’t believe you!
Let me remind you what happened.
Atalanta made their debut at this stage of the competition by dominating Valencia at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia.
The Orobici were simply ruthless from the outset as they pushed the pace and took advantage of Valencia’s listless defence time and time again, creating their own Champions League highlights along the way.
That 4-1 success has left them on the brink of reaching the quarter-finals.
Can Valencia, twice runners-up at the start of the century, now really turn this around?
I don’t think so.
For a start, they will have to do so without their passionate home support.
That is because UEFA has confirmed this second leg will be played behind closed doors in an effort to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Spain’s health ministry says it wants to avoid “large gatherings of fans” due to the outbreak.
Everyone knows the Mestalla Stadium can be intimidating for even high profile visitors but that won’t be the case this week.
That is a major advantage for the Italians who are flying high domestically and in Europe.
Never mind the recent comments of Juventus President Andrea Agnelli who caused controversy by suggesting Atalanta shouldn’t have access to the Champions League “without international history and thanks to just one great season.”
Agnelli was speaking at the FT Business of Football Summit in London and seemed to continue his push for a European Super League.
That is both nonsense and greed. Atalanta are here on merit and without the resources of their rivals who, incidentally, trail Lyon going into their own second leg tie.
The sustainability in the Atalanta academy has made the big clubs chase down the talent produced in Bergamo even before they breakthrough into the first team.
Perhaps, most impressively, coach Gian Piero Gasperini has been able to create a team that is willing to fight for the Nerazzurri colours and pit their wits and not be out of place among the elite of European football.
While Atalanta have had a week off since thrashing Lecce 7-2 in Serie A – they are currently fourth – Valencia warmed up for the second leg with a 1-1 draw at Alaves, a result which left Los Che seventh in La Liga.
They know they need to muster a remarkable home recovery to turn round this tie, although can take heart from some events in recent seasons.
Four teams have recovered to win a Champions League tie on aggregate having lost the first leg by three or more goals, most recently last season’s eventual winners Liverpool in their semi-final against Barcelona (0-3 a, 4-0 h). Deportivo La Coruña (v AC Milan, 2003/04 quarter-final, 4-0 h) and Roma (v Barcelona, 2017/18 quarter-final, 3-0 h) went through after suffering 4-1 away first-leg losses.
Barcelona – with considerable help from the official who awarded contentious penalties – went through after suffering a 4-0 first-leg loss at Paris St Germain at this stage three years ago, winning the return 6-1.
Ironically, Valencia have been far better away from home in the competition this season.
In the group stages, they lost 3-0 at home to Ajax in their second game – their sole defeat in the section – then came from behind to beat French side Lille 4-1 before drawing with Chelsea.
They will have to turn around their home form and do so without their passionate home support if they are to spoil Atalanta’s party.
Given that Atalanta had not faced Spanish club in European competition before the first leg last month, you won’t be surprised to hear there is no previous history.
Atalanta were the only team to make their group stage debut in 2019/20 – they were the 10th Italian club to feature and the 141st overall – and are one of two round of 16 debutants along with RB Leipzig of Germany.
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