Josip Ilicic produced a sublime individual display as his four-goal haul led Atalanta to a 4-3 win away to Valencia, securing an 8-4 aggregate triumph and a first Champions League quarter-final.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s men travelled to Valencia on the back of a comprehensive 4-1 win at San Siro and that coupled with the efforts of the exceptional Ilicic at Mestalla took Atalanta through to the last eight, the two sides playing out a thriller despite no fans being in attendance as a consequence of the coronavirus outbreak.
Atalanta went into the break with a deserved lead, as Ilicic won and scored a pair of penalties either side of a poacher’s effort from Kevin Gameiro.
Gameiro got a second to pull Valencia level and Ferran Torres put them in front for the first time on the night, but Ilicic completed his hat-trick with a fine strike before earning the visitors the victory with another excellent effort.
Ilicic showed a sign of things to come after just three minutes as he lured Mouctar Diakhaby into a clumsy challenge with a clever turn after a brilliant solo run, and the Slovenia international converted the spot-kick confidently.
Gameiro got Valencia back on level terms for the match, slotting into an empty net despite Jose Luis Palomino initially doing well to cut out Rodrigo Moreno’s throughball.
But Atalanta were in front again just before half-time – Ilicic dispatching another penalty after his run into the box was halted by Diakhaby handling the ball.
The second half began at breathtaking speed and Valencia were fortunate to not concede again, as Remo Freuler’s long-range effort struck the crossbar, but the hosts equalised less than a minute later – Gameiro heading in Ferran’s delivery.
Ferran then got himself on the scoresheet with a clever finish over the approaching Marco Sportiello, only for Ilicic to deny Valencia a victory.
Ilicic finished clinically after beating Dani Parejo on the edge of the box, before completing the scoring by caressing a first-time shot into the top-left corner with eight minutes remaining.
What does it mean? Atalanta a force to be reckoned with
Unfortunately, Atalanta’s chances of really making a dent in the latter stages of this competition are likely to be heavily impacted by the lack of football that awaits them with all sporting events in Italy suspended until April 3.
But, whatever their fate, Gasperini’s side will certainly provide us with a little more fun, particularly with the wonderful Ilicic.
Ilicic toys with the Valencia defence
No one else on the pitch came close to Ilicic in terms of quality on Tuesday. The forward was simply unplayable – his elegance and craft leaving the Valencia defence in knots on a regular basis. He won and converted both penalties, while he was always a threat coming in off the right with his wand of a left foot, as evidenced by his third and fourth goals.
It was a day to forget for Valencia centre-back Diakhaby. After conceding both penalties during a first half in which he was run ragged by Ilicic, he was unsurprisingly taken out of the firing line at half-time.
Key Opta Facts
– Ilicic became the fourth different player in Champions League history to score four goals in a knockout match, after Lionel Messi (2009-10 and 2011-12), Mario Gomez (2011-12) and Robert Lewandowski (2012-13).
– Valencia are winless in 10 Champions League knockout matches since beating Inter in the quarter-final second leg in 2002-03 – this is the longest such run in the competition’s history.
– Atalanta are the first Champions League debutants to reach the quarter-finals since Leicester City in 2016-17, and the first Italian side to do so since in their maiden campaign since Lazio in 1999-2000.
– Gameiro is the first player to score for three different Spanish teams in the Champions League, also previously netting for Sevilla and Atletico Madrid.
– Ilicic became the first Slovenian to score a Champions League treble – they are the 35th different nation to have a hat-trick scorer.
Valencia return to LaLiga action on Saturday with a local derby against Levante, though once again there will be no supporters in attendance. As for Atalanta, it is unclear when they will next be in action, but they are not due to play again this month.