MILAN (AP) — From “Game Zero” to game on, Atalanta is showing itself to be a legitimate contender for the Champions League title.
The small team from Bergamo, a city that was at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, is playing in the European competition for the first time this season and has been increasingly hard to beat in Serie A.
Despite a slow start in the group stage and the suspension caused by the pandemic, Atalanta has won nine straight matches — seven of them in the Italian league.
“Before we restarted after this enforced break we told ourselves we should make our Atalanta fans smile because they have suffered a lot,” said Mario Pašalić, a Croatian midfielder who had been on loan from Chelsea but joined permanently last month. “We’re doing it and we must continue doing it.”
Atalanta faced Valencia on Feb. 19 in Milan in a Champions League match that has been dubbed “Game Zero” because of the spread of the disease that followed both in northern Italy and in Spain.
Atalanta won that match 4-1 and then advanced to the quarterfinals with a 4-3 victory at Valencia.
The rest of Atalanta’s matches in the competition will take place in Lisbon next month at a mini-tournament.
“It’s very difficult because the competition is of a scary level, but we have grown along the way, as in the league, and when the moment comes we will try to arrive there in the best way possible,” Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini said. “It’s a unique chance.”
Atalanta’s past two home matches have demonstrated the team’s increased maturity as well as all its qualities on the field.
The 3-2 victory over Lazio last week was an attacking masterclass, and Thursday’s 2-0 win over Napoli proved that Atalanta can also defend.
The match was unusually tight in the first half for Atalanta, which had scored a club record 80 goals heading into the match — 16 more than the next best attack. The team then ramped up the pressure immediately after the break with two goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
“It was proof of our maturity and a demonstration that if we play further back we know how to defend,” Gasperini said. “We did very well in closing all the spaces and the number of chances was still in our favor. In the second half with two quick goals we finished off the match.”
Atalanta needs 12 points from its remaining nine games to match its record of 72, which it set three years ago.
“Our main aim at this moment is beating our record of points,” Gasperini said. “This would bring this team into the history of the club and they deserve it. This team deserves to be the best in the club’s history.”
Winning the Champions League would also be historic, not to mention bringing some joy to a city and region that has suffered for months.
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