STADIO SAN SIRO (Milan) – Atalanta supporters were put through a heart-stopping Wednesday evening as they made their debut in the Champions League’s knockout rounds with an astonishing 4-1 win over Valencia.
La Dea’s incredible recent history had another page written in Milan, as they gave themselves an unimaginable advantage ahead of the return leg at Mestalla on March 10.
Gian Piero Gasperini was forced to change his starting XI moments before kick off as well, with Berat Djimsiti being replaced by Mattia Caldara, and the Nerazzurri started without a recognised striker as Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel took their places on the bench.
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There were no signs of nerves early on as Atalanta came out flying. It came as no surprise that Papu Gomez was at the centre of things as he was fouled while driving into the area, though he sent the resulting freekick over the crossbar.
Mario Pasalic should have opened the scoring moments later with eight on the clock. Papu found Josip Ilicic inside who set the Croatian free.
Clear through on Jaume Domenech, though, he would have expected to make the net bulge but the Valencia No.1 pulled off a fine save.
The breakthrough did come with a quarter of an hour played though. Again Gomez was key as he carried the ball in from the left.
Arriving on the edge of the area, time stood still as he patiently waited until serving up a perfect ball between Los Che’s retreating defence on the six-yard line and Jaume. Hans Hateboer arrived at the back post and sent it back across into the far corner.
Robin Gosens fired one into the side netting and Marten de Roon sent a shot over either side of the visitors’ biggest chance of the half.
Goncalo Guedes got in behind La Dea’s backline and fired across goal but Geoffrey Kondogbia arrived just too late to turn it in.
Ilicic then stepped up with his first Champions League goal, and it was worth the wait. After finding space on the edge of the area he uncharacteristically shifted the ball onto his weaker right foot and picked out Jaume’s top-right corner.
It was almost three minutes into the second half. Gomez was left unmarked on the left and he made his way towards goal by the byline. Kondogbia deflected his cutback, sending it looping over everyone and narrowly evading oncoming a pair of Atalanta players at the far post.
Valencia weren’t letting their heads drop though and Ferran Torres picked out Carlos Soler but after arriving late he shot wide of the near post with a tough chance.
Anything resembling normality was then lost for nine minutes as three goals came in quick succession.
The hosts got the first, and as if Ilicic’s stunner wasn’t enough for the 50,000 or so Bergamaschi packed into the San Siro, Remo Freuler stepped up and delivered his own.
The Swiss was afforded the freedom of the Valencia half just before the hour mark and he accepted the invitation to shoot, curling a perfectly placed strike into the far side netting.
Pierluigi Gollini then caused a moment of panic by gifting the ball to the visitors but with the goal in front of him, Maxi Gomez’s effort was tame and the goalkeeper made amends.
Then, astonishingly, came a fourth. A ball down the right set Hateboer loose and just as he got into the box he rifled in his second of the night.
Denis Cheryshev came on for Guedes and struck instantly, picking out the bottom corner with a fine low drive from 20 yards.
Some nervousness appeared to creep into the Italians then and Valencia pressed into the space as they retreated somewhat. Gollini and his backline started to come under growing pressure, to which Gian Piero Gasperini responded by withdrawing centre-back Mattia Caldara for striker Duvan Zapata.