UCL Preview: Atalanta vs Valencia

Every year in the Champions League, there are one or two teams that are always the most sought after draws. Invariably they are teams that manage to score an upset or two in the Group Stage or maybe finished second place on goal difference, perhaps? With all due respect, Valencia and Atalanta are two of these “preferred draws” but they both have certain qualities that could pose a challenge for other teams. Thankfully for both, they face each other in the Round of 16.

Competing in the Champions League for their first time ever, Atalanta were thrown into a group that could — and very well did — provide an uphill struggle. European regulars Shakhtar Donetsk and the bull-dozer like Manchester City were thought to be the main challenges they would face as their supposed 3rd place spot contender Dinamo Zagreb have a less than stellar European history, having never progressed further than the Group Stage. Despite this, Atalanta started their European journey with a crushing defeat to the Croatian outfit. A very unflattering result for a team who finished 3rd in Serie A last season. As Sam Cooke once said “a change was gonna come”, or something.

Gian Piero Gasperini’s set up with Atalanta is a blend of the traditional Italian 3-man defence with a pressing and energy reminiscent of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. While he has depth and versatility to work with, he obviously has his regular favourites. Josip Ilicic and Duván Zapata, for example, were focal points of his team last season, scoring 41 goals between them in all competitions. But it is in this “all competitions” where Atalanta may have fallen short so early on. Due to their style of play and a significant drop off in quality from their starters to their bench, they have a style that is high risk, high reward and unsustainable across multiple competitions. While Gasperini and co. were able to greatly disrupt Serie A last season, they did not have the added pressures of managing European competitions either. In fact, prior to Gasperini’s arrival, Atalanta were flying under the football; one of the joys of competing in a league so heavily dominated by one team year in year out is that the pressure is off from start to finish.

And now, with all eyes on them, they appeared to be caught. With that being said, Gian Piero Gasperini has developed a reputation for being one of the most tactically astute managers around, able to take what he is given and make it better than the sum of its parts. This ability is highlighted most evidently in his forwards, notably Zapata and Luis Muriel.

The two Colombian forwards were on track to become perennial loanees – Muriel for example has played for 4 teams since 2017, though with 10 goals in 15 league games, Atalanta may be where he settles for a while. Zapata was on the verge of being caught up in Italian football’s whirlwind loan pool befits firmly establishing himself as a one of Atalanta’s most reliable players, netting 28 times in 48 games last season. His performances have been celebrated by the Atalanta chiefs as the permanent transfer clause for his services was activated earlier this month. Incidentally, his former club, Sampdoria activated their clause two weeks before sending him on loan. It is safe to say, however, that this won’t be the case for him again.

We discussed the concept of high risk. high reward before and how this may be their downfall. But over the 6 Group Stage matches, it did not necessarily matter. In their entire history in Champions League, Atalanta have been in a qualifying position for just 4% of it. Their draw against a rotated yet still dangerous Manchester City was clearly enough to inspire yet more running and more determination and for 24 minutes, they were able to hang on. 4% may not be impressive but it was the most important 4% of the competition. The league may be a marathon, but the knockout games against Valencia will be a sprint.

The fact that Valencia started their 2019/20 season with a new manager could be some indication that their previous season was something of a disaster. This, however, could not be further from the truth. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Their former manager, Marcelino, joined a Valencia that had finished 12th for consecutive seasons. His two seasons in charge saw Los Ches finish fourth, qualifying for the Champions League, conceding fewer goals than champions Barcelona whilst also beating them in the Copa Del Rey final. Though it was this result that is believed to be the problem.

Gary Neville once pointed out when reflecting on his career, that the Valencia Chairman (Peter Lim) favours league performance above anything else, even suggesting to the ill-fated manager to “get out of the cups quickly”. So when Marcelino does the unthinkable and not only performs well in the league but also wins the Copa Del Rey, this is not seen as having a great manager but a disobedient one.

While the full details are not known, the considered belief is that Marcelino was sacked because he won a competition that the chairman was not interested in. Sacked for being “too good”. The Valencia fans were (and some still are) mortified by this decision. Thankfully for them and new manager Albert Celades,they are still left with a talented squad who appear to work in great harmony together… at times.

Known for having a proliferative youth set up capable of producing top quality footballers (Isco, Paco Alcacer, Juan Bernat and David Silva all came from Valencia Mestalla), it has become increasingly harder and harder to hold on to their players into their prime. What they currently have this season is a balanced mixture of both young and experience that saw them through Group H with only a few questions to be asked.

From their six matches, it is clear to see that their main attacking threat comes in the form of Rodrigo. A versatile forward capable of playing anywhere across the front line, his ability to run and create and run some more would, ironically, see him fit in seamlessly to Gasperini’s Atalanta. His absence was felt somewhat against Lille, possibly their most stagnant performance (even their 3–0 defeat at Ajax can be put down to bad luck given the amount of chances missed and bars hit). Although he has not scored many goals this season, his ability to be anywhere on the pitch could be the key to a long run in the knockout stage. His knee injury has very much highlighted an inability to win and close games, notably a recent 4–1 defeat to Mallorca, a team battling relegation.

When they play Atalanta, Valencia will inevitably be facing a three-man defensive line, an inevitability they will be looking to exploit. For their attack, they still have players capable of making a difference, in spite of Rodrigo’s absence. Maxi Gomez, for example; considered to be the heir apparent to Luis Suarez, is their top scorer in all competitions, though he was unable to mark his name in the Group Stage. Against a three-man defence, Valencia may wish to do away with their preferred 4–4–2 and opt for a more attack minded 4–3–3. If Rodrigo is to be out for these matches, Gomez and young wide players Ferran Torres and Carlos Soler could cause havoc for Gasperini’s 3-man backline.

Sadly, though, it is not as simple as that. While this attack could be dangerous, Celades’s team has, so far, only been able to keep 6 clean sheets this season out of 25 games — they are lucky to have 6 considering Ross Barkley hit an 87th minute penalty against the bar.. A shakey defence, yes, but one made up of players that are better than that. Ezequiel Garay faced Germany in the World Cup final. José Gayà is good enough to move to a bigger club in need of a pacey left back, an inevitability at this point. The key man in this set up will be Mouctar Diakhaby. The eventual France international is capable of providing defensive cover in both the midfield and the back line. A fit Diakhaby will be a problem for whichever iteration of attack Atalanta put out.

Considering the danger that both teams pose to each other, ie. strong attacks facing potentially exploitable defences, both teams may just have to settle for outscoring their opponent — a 5–4 victory is still a victory.

Of all of the knockout games being played, this will maybe have the least interest. It does not have the glitz of Real Madrid vs Manchester City. It is two upper-mid table teams facing each other. But from a football purists perspective, from a storytelling perspective and from a perspective of general football fans, Atalanta and Gasperini is a tale that many would not want to end. And if Peter Lim has his way, it won’t end just yet.

via Colgadosporelfutbol

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