STADIO SAN SIRO (Milan) – Atalanta were made to wait until round five for their first ever Champions League win but La Dea sent Dinamo Zagreb packing from Milan on Tuesday evening empty-handed after being on the wrong end of a dominant performance from their hosts.
For much of the first half it was hard to escape the feeling that it was going to be another one of those nearly nights for the Nerazzurri though. Chances came and went, they should have been out of sight even inside ten minutes, but they had just a one-goal lead at the break.
Atalanta have Papu Gomez to thank again as their captain inspired them to a first ever Champions League win to still be in with a chance of progression. @ConJClancy is at the San Siro for #FIFattheGames.
— ForzaItalianFootball (@SerieAFFC) November 26, 2019
That lead came from the penalty spot, believe it or not, as Luis Muriel calmly converted midway through the half after he himself was fouled.
Marten de Roon expressed a combination of relief and surprise in the mixed zone afterwards when he said “fortunately we scored the penalty this time” with a laugh, and the eruption of noise as Muriel sent Dominik Livakovic the wrong way was one filled with those same emotions.
Papu the phenomenon
It’s hard to imagine just where Atalanta would be without Alejandro Papu Gomez, but it’s safe to say that they’d be some way away from winning Champions League matches.
Orchestrating every attack as ever, the No.10 might have felt aggrieved that he didn’t already have a couple of assists with less than half an hour played thanks to Mario Pasalic swiping wildly at low crosses and executing nothing but airshots.
But Papu kept going and was near perfect from the first to last minute. Starting on the right of Gian Piero Gasperini’s two behind Muriel.
His goal was awarded UEFA.com’s Skill of the Night and it’s hard to argue against it. Luka Ivanusec was the victim of a nutmeg from an angle that didn’t seem possible for one to be executed and then, coming in off the right, he poked a low strike across into the far bottom corner.
More than his quick footwork leaving Dinamo a bit dazed, he was everywhere and shortly after his own goal he intercepted an attack in his own box with a backheeled flick, prompting another explosion of noise from all around the San Siro.
Fans of Serie A are well accustomed to what the Argentinian is capable of and every time he takes to the pitch in Italy he terrorises anyone unfortunate enough to be tasked with marking him.
Now, though, he’s done it on the very biggest stage and in what was one of the most important games in Atalanta’s 112-year history. They needed the win and they got it, but it wouldn’t have come without their captain.
Releasing the beast in Palomino
Jose Luis Palomino isn’t the most composed presence in Atalanta’s backline and his erratic decisions have cost La Dea more than once, even this season.
But Gasperini might have stumbled across the best formula to reduce the risk posed by the Argentinian in Simon Kjaer. The Dane’s calmness allowed for Palomino to make those instinctive and frequent ventures out of the back three, be it in possession or to press an opponent.
That’s exactly what happened too. Whenever Dinamo broke beyond Atalanta’s midfield – and at times even before they head – Palomino was the first to charge out and close the space in front of them. His energy was matched by De Roon and Remo Freuler in front of him, giving the Croatians a torrid time.
With Berat Djimsiti and Rafael Toloi by Palomino’s side Atalanta are lacking composure in front of Pierluigi Gollini but Kjaer is the perfect accomplice for the No.6.
It’s worth emphasising just how good he was, too. Having become a father for the first time just days earlier, he had all the more reason to celebrate the three points and an excellent individual showing.
It’s not over
After three defeats from as many games it seemed impossible but Atalanta are just two results away from reaching the Champions League’s last 16.
To progress they need to win at Shakhtar Donetsk in their last game and Manchester City have to avoid defeat against Dinamo.
Nothing but three points will do so, just as they did on Tuesday, they’ll be going all out from the off.