Atalanta will be looking to mark their first ever appearance in the UEFA Champions League knockout stages with a win, when they take on Valencia this week.
The UEFA Champions League returned this week after a two-month break with the Round of 16 stage kicking off. It will be a monumental occasion for Serie A outfit Atalanta, who will be playing their first ever knockout game in the competition on Wednesday night when they host La Liga side Valencia at San Siro.
Atalanta qualified for the Round of 16 phase in a dramatic fashion after defeating Shakhtar Donetsk in their final Group C game, to finish second behind Manchester City. Since that game, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side have lost just three of their ten games in all competitions and are unbeaten in their last five, with their most recent fixture in Serie A ending in a 2-1 win over AS Roma.
Valencia too needed a 1-0 win on the final matchday of the group stage against Ajax to qualify for the knockouts. Los Che finished top of Group H ahead of Chelsea. Their form since then though has been up and down, winning only five of their twelve matches in all competitions. Most recently, Albert Celades’ men held Atletico Madrid to a 2-2 draw in La Liga.
This will be the first time ever that Atalanta and Valencia are facing each other in a UEFA competition. And ahead of the game, we at The Hard Tackle take a closer look at both the teams.
Team News & Tactics
Bosko Sutalo, who arrived from NK Osijek in the January transfer window, is the only player unavailable for Atalanta due to an ankle injury. Rafael Toloi is available for selection after missing their final group game due to suspension.
Gasperini is expected to set his team up in a 3-4-1-2 formation with Pierluigi Gollini manning the goal for the hosts. The three-man backline ought to comprise of Toloi, Jose Luis Palomino and Berat Djimsiti. Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens will be the wing-backs on the right and left sides respectively and will be in charge of providing width going forward.
Dutchman Marten de Roon is expected to anchor the midfield for Atalanta, partnering up with Remo Freuler, meaning Mario Pasalic will have to make do with a place on the bench on Wednesday night. The creativity on the field will come from club captain Alejandro Gomez, who will be slotting in as the No. 10 against Valencia.
The tw0-man strikeforce for Atalanta will be comprised of Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic, while Luis Muriel will provide additional firepower from the bench if needed.
Probable Lineup (3-4-1-2): Gollini; Toloi, Palomino, Djimsiti; Hateboer, de Roon, Freuler, Gosens; Gomez; Ilicic, Zapata
The visitors, unlike Atalanta, have a number of injury concerns heading into Wednesday’s game. Valencia will be without the services of Ezequiel Garay, Cristiano Piccini and Manu Vallejo, but the biggest blow comes with the absence of star forward Rodrigo Moreno. Gabriel Paulista is suspended for the tie, after being sent off in the last group game.
With Jasper Cillessen fit again, he is likely to start in goal ahead of Jaume Domenech. Daniel Wass is expected to get the nod at right-back while Jose Gaya is pretty much guaranteed to feature on the left-side of the Valencia backline. With no Gabriel, Mouctar Diakhaby and Eliaquim Mangala ought to form the central defensive partnership for Los Che.
Geoffrey Kondogbia scored the second equalizer for Valencia against Atletico last time out. That should earn him a starting berth in the middle of the park alongside captain and key man Dani Parejo.
Ferran Torres is a shoo-in on the right flank while Carlos Soler is likely to edge out Goncalo Guedes for a spot on the left-side of the midfield. They will be key in creating chances for the strike partnership of the in-form Maxi Gomez and Kevin Gameiro, who will start in the absence of Rodrigo.
Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Cillessen; Wass, Diakhaby, Mangala, Gaya; Torres, Parejo, Kondogbia, Soler; Gomez, Gameiro
- This will be the first encounter between Atalanta and Valencia. It’s also the first time that La Dea will be facing Spanish opposition in a competitive fixture.
- Valencia have won only one of their eight away games against Italian opposition in the Champions League (D2 L5), a 1-0 victory against Roma in the 2002/03 second group stages. They have also failed to find the net in six of those eight games.
- Atalanta are the first Champions League debutant to make it to the knockout stages of the Champions League since Leicester City in 2016-17. They also are the first team to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League after losing their opening three group games.
- Valencia are in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2012/13. It’s been 13 years since they last made it past the round of 16 (2006-07).
- Valencia have never won an away game in the Champions League knockout stages (D4 L5). They’ve also only ever kept one clean sheet in those nine outings, a goalless draw against Leeds United at Elland Road in the semi-finals back in 2000-01.
Player to Watch
The Slovenian international has been in scintillating form in the Serie A, having already netted 14 goals from 20 matches, with nine of them coming in the last eight league outings. However, Ilicic is yet to score a single goal in the Champions League this season.
While he may be yet to break his duck in Europe this term, Ilicic has been dangerous in the final third. In fact, the 32-year-old has won more fouls than any other player in the final third of the pitch in this season’s Champions League group stage (8), two of them leading to penalties. He will be hoping to finally get off the mark in the continental competition on Wednesday.
Atalanta 2-1 Valencia
Atalanta have been in terrific form coming into their first ever knockout tie in the Champions League. La Dea are on a five-game unbeaten run in all competitions and have scored 19 goals in those matches, while letting in only seven.
Valencia, on the other hand, have been playing well below their best in recent matches, having failed to win their last three matches. Their recent away record of three defeats in five games does not make for a good reading either. Add to it, the fact that Rodrigo Moreno will be unavailable makes things even more difficult for Los Che.
With the form that Atalanta are in, coupled with Valencia’s poor run of results, the scales are tilted in favour of Gian Piero Gasperini’s men, which is why we at The Hard Tackle are predicting a 2-1 win for La Dea in what will be a historic occasion for them on Wednesday.