In an odd turn of events in this oddest of Uefa Champions League adventures, only one team will be representing Italy in the final eight of the tournament in Lisbon this week. And is not whom you would expect.
As the coronavirus took its toll across the sporting landscape over the past six months, Uefa were forced to cobble together a one-legged ‘mini-tournament’ event in Portugal in order to complete the competition in a two-week window.
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And with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus having exited the event at the hands of Lyon, and Napoli succumbing to Barcelona last week, it is left to lesser light Atalanta to fly the flag for Serie A.
Having been placed in the more favourable side of the draw — avoiding the likes of Barca, Bayern Munich and Manchester City — the Bergamo club will face big-spenders Paris St-Germain on Wednesday in the mini-tournament’s first clash.
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Bergamo was one of the hardest hit city’s during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak across Europe, a point not lost on Atalanta’s Remo Freuler as they prepare to take on the star-studded French side.
“We will play with Bergamo and for Bergamo, this will give us extra strength,” the midfielder told Eco di Bergamo newspaper.
“This region has suffered a lot, we know that very well in the squad and this gives us extra motivation when we go onto the field. It was in the case in Serie A and it will be the case in Lisbon.”
Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini has moulded a successful team on a small budget by bringing the best out of players who had underachieved at other clubs.
The club are so proud of their local connections that club president Antonio Percassi sends a replica shirt to every baby born in Bergamo’s hospitals.
Atalanta have been relegated three times since the turn of the century, but their fortunes changed dramatically after Gasperini arrived in 2016.
The 62-year-old is regarded as one of Italy’s most tactically astute coaches, and he says he imitates others and uses “a little bit of everything”.
They employ the free-flowing attacking football favoured by Barcelona, Liverpool and Manchester City and are a joy to watch at times — their nothing-to-lose approach making them the top-scoring side n Europe this season.
And they will fancy their chances once again against PSG, who have been hit by a flood of injuries. One man who is fit is Neymar and the Parisiennes will look to the world’s most expensive player to see them into the semi-finals in Wednesday night’s one-off game at the closed-doors Estadio da Luz.
PSG look to Neymar
Neymar’s time at PSG has been marred by injuries and talk of a return to Barcelona, but he is fit and leading the line in the absence of the injured Kylian Mbappe, suspended Angel Di Maria and departed Edinson Cavani.
“I think I’m having my best time since I came to Paris,” Neymar said last week.
Mbappe, is expected to be on the bench at best as he battles to shake off an ankle injury suffered in last month’s French Cup final against St-Etienne.
PSG’s Marco Verratti — their key playmaker — is also out with a calf injury. But with Neymar fit and able to turn any game when he chooses to turn on the style, PSG will remain hopeful of progressing to face either Atletico Madrid or RB Leipzig next week in the semis.
“We’re a very strong team together, we’ve won four titles already this season, and I’m very happy,” coach Thomas Tuchel told PSG TV this week. “It’s a gift for me.”
Atalanta v Paris St-Germain
Estadio da Luz, Lisbon, Portugal
Broadcast on beIN Sports