Atalanta, the Italian upstarts menacing PSG
PSG are once against seen as France’s best bet for a Champions League victory, despite Lyon's shock elimination of Juventus last week. But they face tough opposition in Wednesday's quarter-final -- in one leg on neutral territory in Lisbon due to the pandemic – in the shape of Atalanta, the Italian side that have emerged from nowhere to play some of Europe’s most exciting football.
PSG famously collapsed against Barcelona and Manchester United in recent years’ Champions League knockout rounds. But this time it’s not the old stalwarts of elite football threatening to put the Parisian nouveaux riches in their place, but Atalanta, the scrappy Italian upstarts in their first ever Champions League season.
Atalanta have just had their best year in their 113-year history – finishing third, as the Serie A’s top scorers with 98 goals. This goalscoring prowess is the product of an atypical style in Italian football, with fast-paced, risk-taking attacking waves, in contrast to the highly organised, sometimes defensive play that has long characterised the Serie A.
The team’s barnstorming season provided much-needed hope to its native town of Bergamo, among the cities hit hardest by the coronavirus in the early stages of the pandemic. Atalanta scored even higher than Serie A grandees Lazio, Roma and AC Milan. Their 5-0 thrashing of Milan in December – the former titans’ worst defeat in more than two decades – was an especially delightful moment for Atalanta, leaving no one doubting their rise to the forefront of the Italian game.
Atalanta’s attacking prowess
Argentinian club captain Papu Gomez has been central to Atalanta’s success. As a creative midfielder in the style of Paul Scholes, Gomez is a menace to defenders with his darting runs, space-creating manoeuvres and incisive passes to strikers and wingers.
In front of Gomez plays Atalanta’s top scorer this season, Duvan Zapata, who signed for the club in January 2020 after two years on loan from Sampdoria. Since he joined the Bergamo-based side for good, the Colombian scored 12 goals in just 19 games, showing a redoubtable knack for using his height in headers. He also possesses lethal finishing skills with his feet and a gift for the nitty-gritty of holding up play with his back to the goal, enabling reinforcements to arrive when the Atalanta attack is in a tight spot.
However, Zapata’s most frequent strike partner, Slovenian forward Josip Illicic, will be out of action in the PSG clash due to personal reasons. This will no doubt disappoint Atalanta fans, seeing as Illicic grabbed the footballing world’s attention by scoring all four goals in Atalanta’s previous Champions League match, their 4-3 victory over Valencia in the second leg of the last 16.
Given Illicic’s absence, Zapata’s fellow Colombian Luis Muriel is likely to feature in the Atalanta attack. He has long been likened to former Brazil and Inter striker Ronaldo for his menacing runs at defenders and deadly finishing skills as well as his inconsistent form. Yet despite some poor runs of form, Muriel’s track record of 18 goals in 24 games in 2019-20 shows what an asset he can be for Atalanta.
Although the Bergamo club’s defence has been shakier than its attack, Dutch holding midfielder Marten de Roon has been an impressive talent, especially in terms of prescient positioning to disrupt opponents’ attacks through tackling and interception alike. Further back in the Atalanta lineup, de Roon’s fellow Dutchman Hans Hateboer has won plaudits for his talents as a versatile full-back, equally proficient in defence and attack – especially in light of his two goals when Atalanta made easy work of Valencia in their 4-1 win in the last 16 first leg.
PSG’s knockout malaise
On Wednesday night, Atalanta will face a much better-funded outfit, desperate to prove a point. Ever since PSG’s Qatari owners took over in 2011 and started pouring in money, they were supposed to be the French team that finally makes it in Europe. It hasn’t worked out – they’ve never got to the semi-finals.
The Parisians famously crumbled against sides with glittering histories in two matches that incarnate their Champions League struggle. In 2017-18, Barcelona destroyed them 6-1 in the last 16 second leg – throwing PSG’s 4-0 victory in the first onto the dustbin of history. Two later, they faced Manchester United at the same stage. The Old Devils were a far cry from the almighty steamroller of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, yet after the Parisians’ 2-0 win at Old Trafford, they humiliated PSG at the Parc de Princes with a 3-1 comeback.
It doesn’t augur well that Kylian Mbappé – the most iconic star Qatari money has bought for PSG – is unlikely to play. Manager Thomas Tuchel told journalists that it will “take a miracle” for him to overcome his ankle injury. Hard-as-nails defensive midfielder Marco Verratti, PSG’s backbone, will also probably be ruled out by injury. Angel di Maria, the veteran winger whose marauding runs down the flank make him a full-back’s nightmare, is suspended.
Neymar, however, will be as potent a threat as ever, evinced by his track record of 24 goals in 32 games this season. PSG have got better at getting the ball up to the Brazilian goalscorer over recent months, having mastered a move that has also served Atalanta so well – deploying a full-back to attack in opportune moments, in the style of Ashley Cole or Roberto Carlos. Little known talent Juan Bernat did a sterling job of that in the second leg of this year’s last 16, scoring the second PSG goal that sent Borussia Dortmund packing.
In that victory over the Germans, PSG displayed the kind of tenacity and discipline they had sorely lacked in the Champions League. Perhaps they are tired of losing in the knockouts by this point. Whether they yearn to prove themselves as strongly as the Italian upstarts is another question.
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