Atalanta have made a habit of defying the odds in recent years. One example was when they finished fourth in Serie A in 2017 and returned to European football for the first time in 26 years. Qualifying for this season’s Champions League was another. Making it through to the last-16 of the competition after they had lost their first three group games was perhaps their biggest coup yet.
Halfway through the group stage, their record was abysmal: played three, lost three, scored one goal, conceded 11. A draw against Manchester City in their fourth group game brought some pride and respectability. It gave the fans something to cheer, but they were still without a win in four matches and there seemed to be no way back for Gian Piero Gasperini’s men.
Then, victory at home to Dinamo Zagreb gave them a glimmer of hope. To steal second place in the group they would have to win at Shakhtar Donetsk in their final game and hope that Manchester City won in Zagreb. City cruised past the Croatians and La Dea dominated Shakhtar Donetsk in a 3-0 win. They had done it again.
Their reward is a last-16 tie with Valencia who, compared to the Italians, have a rich history in Europe. Valencia have reached two Champions League finals, losing to Real Madrid in 2000 in the first final between two teams from the same country and then to Bayern Munich on penalties the following year. They won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1980 and the Uefa Cup final in 2004. They have also won the European Super Cup twice (against Nottingham Forest in 1980 and Porto in 2004), the Copa del Rey eight times and six La Liga titles. All those successes put Atalanta’s record of winning just one major trophy in their history – the Coppa Italia in 1963 – in the shade.
With such pedigree, the Spaniards appear to have the advantage. But Valencia are a club that seems to exist in a constant state of crisis. Since Rafa Benítez guided them to the league title in 2004, they have hired 20 coaches. A string of famous names – Claudio Ranieri, Quique Sánchez Flores, Ronald Koeman, Unai Emery, Mauricio Pellegrino, Ernesto Valverde, Nuno Espírito Santo and Gary Neville among them – have come and gone, but the club has little to show for all those departed managers.
Since Benítez left for Liverpool 16 years ago, they have only won two trophies – the Copa del Rey in 2008 and 2019 – and they said goodbye to both victorious coaches soon after. Their disorganisation extends beyond the pitch. The club invested millions in a new stadium, the Nou Mestalla, which is still gathering dust in the north west of the city after debts halted work on the project in 2009.
In contrast, Atalanta are a model football club. In the last 10 years, they have employed three coaches. Their stadium is undergoing work to bring it up to Uefa standards, with one stand complete and work due to begin on another soon. They have one of the most envied youth academies in Europe. And they have remained solvent thanks to some smart player trading. When results were published for last season, they were the most profitable club in Serie A.
Valencia travel to the San Siro for the first leg of the tie on Wednesday night. What can the orderly team from Bergamo expect from their chaotic rivals? Valencia topped a tough Champions League group thanks their win at Ajax in the final game. The result was all the more impressive given the Dutch champions had thrashed them 3-0 at the Mestalla in October. But this season has been played against a backdrop of upheaval.
The club fired popular coach Marcelino before the group stage even began. In two years at the club, he qualified or the Champions League twice, led them to a Europa League semi-final and won the Copa del Rey, beating Barcelona in the final. Marcelino has since claimed he is “absolutely sure” he was sacked for trying to win the trophy rather than simply concentrating on qualifying for the Champions League. “During the season, we received direct and indirect messages that we had to discount it. The fans wanted to fight for it and the players and coaching staff too.”
The owners, apparently, had other ideas. “They didn’t tell me why they didn’t want the Copa, only that it was a minor tournament and that I could be putting the main goal at risk,” said Marcelino. “Winning the Copa was the trigger for this situation. I was congratulated for qualifying for the Champions League, not for winning the Copa.”
Sporting director Mateu Alemany followed Marcelino out of the club, with the inexperienced Albert Celades taking over as coach and César Sánchez filling Alemany’s shoes. “The fans feel disappointed, bewildered and defenceless,” says Valencia-based sports journalist Noelia Holguín. “Marcelino’s goodbye was a blow to them. The owner, Peter Lim, and the president, Anil Murthy, have shown that they want power in all aspects: economic and sporting. They think only of the economic and business side, without taking into account the views of the technical figures. Murthy described the coach and sports director as ‘officials’ who must ‘execute the instructions of the owner.’”
Valencia looked in good shape after their win in Amsterdam in December, but their form has been up and down since. Over a 10-day period last month they played three games and somehow lost 4-1 to Real Mallorca, beat Barcelona in La Liga and were then taken to penalties by a third-tier team in the cup. On a positive note, only Ajax have beaten them at home all season. Yet they have not won any of their last three games and were knocked out of the Copa del Rey earlier this month by newly promoted Granada.
“An away goal could be essential,” says Holguín. “Valencia are not in a good moment, physically or psychologically. They must be careful with counterattacks and set pieces. Their strength lies in their verticality and the connection of the midfield with the attack. They play 4-4-2, with captain Dani Parejo setting the pace, Francis Coquelin providing the security, and the width of Ferran Torres and Carlos Soler harming opponents. Rodrigo is the focal point and always delivers at the most important times.
“Their weaknesses are in defence. With Ezequiel Garay injured, Celades has two options: Mouctar Diakhaby, who is not delivering on the field, or Eliaquim Mangala, who is an experienced player but one who has not played many minutes. Valencia tend to grow against the strongest teams. They need to hit the ground running and recover their scoring spirit. But above all, they need to give a solid and united image in line with the team’s history and achievements – and to play with attitude.”
It may not be the glamour tie of the round, but Atalanta v Valencia is one of the most intriguing.