LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Just like that, Atalanta’s Champions League dream was over.
Two late goals three minutes apart ended Atalanta’s remarkable run and crushed the hopes of its fans back home in Bergamo, the small Italian city hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
The team’s chances of bringing home the European trophy ended with a 2-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals on Wednesday in Lisbon.
“I can only thank my players. We were so close, really close,” Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini said.
Atalanta took the lead at the Stadium of Light thanks to Mario Pašalić’s first-half goal, but Marquinhos equalized in the 90th and Eric Choupo-Moting scored the winner in the third minute of stoppage time.
It was a heartbreaking finish to Atalanta’s first appearance in Europe’s top club competition, one that had grown bigger than sports after the coronavirus killed more than 6,000 in Bergamo. Atalanta players were behind the city from the start and said they wanted to bring joy back to their supporters after months of suffering.
“At this moment, it’s quite painful,” Atalanta midfielder Marten de Roon said. “Tomorrow, I will be proud of our team and club but at this moment I feel disappointment.”
Back in Bergamo, the fans remained fiercely proud of their players — none of whom had left the city in its darkest moment and during one of the strictest lockdowns in the world.
A few months ago the people of Lombardy, in which Bergamo is situated, were only allowed to leave their houses for essentials such as food or health emergencies.
Fans are still not allowed into the stadium — although some Atalanta supporters had made the trip to Lisbon — but approximately 300 of them were gathered at Edoné, a bar and a cultural space near the team’s stadium.
In the balmy evening and under picturesque fairy lights, they wildly celebrated Pašalić’s goal, applauded every save and good move from their players, and grasped their heads in shock and groaned at the late heartbreak.
“Atalanta already won and the city already won because five months ago, when Atalanta beat Valencia and we were in our darkest days, a night like tonight looked like impossible back then because we were just feeling the worst moment, fear for our best friends, fear for ourselves, fear for our family,” said 38-year-old Franz Barcella, an Atalanta season ticket holder and the managing partner at Edoné.
“And in those days, a night, a normal summer night of drinking, of watching a game or watching a movie seemed just like impossible for us in Bergamo. So already being here with our friends, having a pizza, hugging, laughing … it feels like a dream, it feels like joy back again.”
Atalanta reached the final eight with an 8-4 aggregate victory over Valencia in the round of 16. The first leg took place on Feb. 19 in Milan in a match dubbed “Game Zero” because of the spread of the disease that followed both in northern Italy and in Spain.
Images of a convoy of military trucks driving coffins out of the city of Bergamo because the crematorium couldn’t keep up were beamed around the world.
“Tonight is not about a quarterfinal of a Champions League. For us it’s much more,” Barcella added.
Atalanta will get another chance to succeed in the Champions League next season after qualifying again through a third-place finish in Serie A, repeating its best-ever result from a year ago.
More AP soccer https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Matar reported from Bergamo.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni