Atalanta hope their European fairy-tale continues against Valencia
Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta are counting on the wave of enthusiasm, generated by the Italian outsiders' remarkable debut Champions League season, to edge past Valencia into the quarter-finals.
The team from the foothills of the Italian Alps take on the Spanish side tomorrow morning (Singapore time) in a last-16, first-leg clash at the 80,000-seater San Siro, which has nearly four times the capacity of their home stadium 55 kilometres away.
"This is a game that we have been waiting months for," said Gasperini.
"Being able to play in front of so many of our fans at a venue like the San Siro is a beautiful achievement that we have been waiting a long time for.
"The Champions League is a dream which we'll try to carry forward as much as possible.
"Practically the whole city of Bergamo is travelling to Milan."
The team's stunning run comes despite losing their opening three Champions League group games, including 4-0 away to Dinamo Zagreb before a 5-1 loss at Manchester City.
But a 1-1 draw against City at the San Siro sparked the revival of "La Dea" (The Goddess), who won their remaining games to finish second in Group C.
After that match, City boss Pep Guardiola said: "Playing Atalanta is like going to the dentist, it's really, really tough."
Atalanta's confidence has been further boosted after seeing off AS Roma 2-1 last Saturday. The victory consolidated fourth place in Serie A and bolstered their hopes of returning to the Champions League next season.
Their current form is a remarkable achievement for a club with one of the smallest budgets in Serie A. Their transformation follows the arrival of Gasperini in 2016 from Genoa.
He guided them to fourth in Serie A in his first season to qualify for the Europa League.
Last season, they finished third and qualified for the Champions League for the first time.
Said Gasperini: "We have been playing at a very high level for three or four years. It's an extraordinary period."
Atalanta have the best attack in the league with 63 goals scored - 17 more than Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus.
Despite 32 goals conceded in 24 league games, Gasperini sees this defensive weakness as a motivator.
"When we are under pressure, we play better because we remove every inhibitor brake," he said. - AFP