On the 26th minute, Mario Pasalic’s finessed curler hit the back of Paris Saint-Germain’s net. The Champions League debutants, Atalanta, found themselves 1-0 up against the mighty Parisians.
The Ligue 1 holders, too, had knocked on Atalanta’s door a couple of times before the opener, but luck, at that time, favoured the bold.
In the second half, Atalanta fought tooth and nail to keep Neymar’s PSG at bay. They defended in numbers, committed bodies into the box, and tried their best to neutralise PSG’s world-beating talents. And right up until the dying minutes, their efforts were on course to reap the rewards.
Two successive goals from Marquinhos and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, in the 90th and 92nd minutes, respectively, gave PSG the all-important lead, and the heavyweights weren’t going to let that one slide.
After the whistle, Atalanta players collapsed to the ground — they were on the receiving end of one of football’s cruellest comebacks. The defeat is going to hurt for a while, but we believe we’re only seeing the origin story of a new dark horse in the Champions League.
A stratospheric development
Since 2016-17, under the tutelage of Gian Piero Gasperini, Atalanta have somehow, against all odds, managed to make a name for itself in the Italian top-flight.
What’s more interesting is that Gasperini hasn’t really had an easy time at the helm, but he and his players always seem to find a way out of even the messiest of situations.
In the 2018-19 campaign, Atalanta managed to pick up only a single win in their first eight Serie A fixtures. Yet, just when people started to write them off, they came up with one of the most inspiring runs in the competition and finished third in the league — their best ever result in the competition.
The surprising top-three finish also opened up another lucrative avenue, it allowed them to book their place in the Champions League for the first time.
Placed in a group alongside Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Dinamo Zagreb, Atalanta needed to bring their A-game to have a shot at knockout football.
Surprisingly, here, too, they didn’t manage to perform right out of the gate. In the first three matches, Atalanta suffered 4-0, 2-1, and 5-1 defeats to Zagreb, Shakhtar, and Man City, respectively.
With no point from the first round of group stage fixtures, they needed a miracle in the second half.
They shared spoils with Manchester City in the fourth group stage match, but recorded 2-0 and 3-0 wins over Zagreb and Shakhtar, respectively.
Despite picking up only seven points out of a possible 18, Atalanta qualified for the Round of 16, becoming the only second team in Champions League history to qualify for the knockouts after losing their first three group games.
In the Round of 16, they went up against La Liga outfit, Valencia and delivered one of the most exciting second-leg clashes in history. After securing a 4-1 win at home in the first leg, Atalanta found themselves in a tough spot away at Valencia.
At one point, they found themselves 3-2 down, with half an hour still to play. They pulled up their sleeves and scored two goals in the final 20 minutes to come home with a 4-3 win — 8-4 in aggregate — and book a single-legged quarter-final clash with PSG.
Domestically, however, Atalanta were pretty consistent right from the very beginning. They did drop points, here and there, but they always looked in contention for a Champions League finish, for the second consecutive season.
Their best run came between matchday 23 and 31 when they racked up nine wins on the trot. Atalanta even had the potential to steal the crown from Juventus, but a few unfavourable results allowed the Old Lady to finish a point ahead of Inter, while Gasperini’s men filled up the third place.
A little jog through Atalanta’s recent history reveals a compelling story of fluency and perseverance. They score goals — 98 goals in the league itself — for fun, never seem to go down without a fight, and always seem to ready to take punishment — Atalanta, we believe, is an unshakable unit, a team very easy to root for.
Yes, they don’t have an out-and-out world-beater at their disposal, and they surely aren’t the most technical team out there. Yet, whenever they get going, there’s no stopping this stubborn bunch. There’s no telling which giant they would kill next.
They are the symbol of hope for the COVID-stricken city of Bergamo, and the fans would be forever grateful for the joys the team brought during their worst nightmare.