Josip Ilicic scored four goals against Valencia as Atalanta eased into the Champions League quarter-finals in the competition’s first match to be played behind closed doors because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Italians arrived in Spain with a commanding 4-1 lead from the first leg of their last-16 tie and quickly added to their advantage inside an eerie Mestalla Stadium.
With the chants of a large gathering of home supporters outside the ground clearly audible, Slovenia forward Ilicic converted a third-minute penalty for the Serie A side after he had been fouled by Valencia defender Mouctar Diakhaby.
And while Kevin Gameiro capitalised on a defensive mix-up to tap in an equaliser for the hosts, Diakhaby’s handball allowed Ilicic to score his second spot-kick of the evening to put the visitors 6-2 up on aggregate.
A second Gameiro goal, this time from a close-range header, levelled the score on the night before Ferran Torres’ lobbed effort put the La Liga side in front.
However, Ilicic’s rasping left-foot drive from 20 yards restored Atalanta’s three-goal aggregate lead as he became the first Slovenian player to score a Champions League hat-trick.
Ilicic’s fourth, a left-foot effort into the top left corner, rounded off an 8-4 aggregate win on a fine evening for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side, who have now scored 28 goals in their last seven games and become the competition’s first debutants to reach the last eight since Leicester City in 2016-17.
A curious Champions League backdrop
When referee Ovidiu Hategan blew the full-time whistle it was noticeable that you could hear the Atalanta players celebrate a first appearance in the last eight of Europe’s elite club competition.
But then almost every noise throughout the encounter could be heard, including Hategan’s warnings to Valencia goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen to stay on his line before he faced both of Ilicic’s penalties.
The decision to play the match in an empty stadium came after Spain’s health ministry announced it wants to avoid “large gatherings of fans” in an effort to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Valencia themselves had announced on 28 February that they were suspending all non-sporting activity with the club’s first-team players, after a journalist who attended the first leg of this tie had contracted coronavirus.
And it provided a curious backdrop to a knockout tie in the Champions League, which was further heightened by both sets of players seemingly unaware of what to do once the starting theme tune had finished, having dispensed with the traditional pre-match handshakes.
Overturning a 4-1 deficit from the first leg in Italy was always going to be difficult assignment for Valencia and while fans outside chanted their support, the Spanish side were unable to threaten a comeback in front of an empty stadium.
‘Atalanta is no longer a surprise’
Atalanta arrived in the competition as a relatively unfancied and unknown quantity, despite pipping AC Milan and Inter Milan to third spot in Serie A last term.
And defeats in their first three Group C games – including heavy drubbings at Dinamo Zagreb and Manchester City – did little to shake the perception that their debut in Europe’s premier club competition would be short and demoralising.
However, a draw against City in their fourth game supplied their first point, and wins against Zagreb and at Shakhtar Donetsk in their final group match secured qualification to the last 16.
And like Bayer Leverkusen (2002 finalists), Porto (2004 winners), Monaco (2017 semi-finalists), Ajax (2019 semi-finalists) and Tottenham (2019 finalists), the side that have scored 70 goals in Serie A this term – 20 more than leaders Juventus – now believe they have the capacity to spring a surprise.
“I don’t want to stop, I want to continue. I’m having fun,” said Ilicic.
“Atalanta is no longer a surprise. We are doing great things and we want to continue. We want to show that we deserve to be here. We have fun we don’t worry about who we’re playing against. We move on.”
Man of the match – Josip Ilicic (Atalanta)
Gameiro’s unique treble – the stats
- Josip Ilicic became the fourth different player in Champions League history to score four goals in a knockout stage match, after Lionel Messi (2009-10 & 2011-12), Mario Gomez (2011-12) and Robert Lewandowski (2012-13).
- Ilicic is the first Slovenian to score a Champions League hat-trick – they are the 35th different nation to record a hat-trick – and the oldest player to score an away Champions League hat-trick (32 years 41 days), overtaking Zlatan Ibrahimovic (32 years 20 days for Paris St-Germain v Anderlecht in 2013-14).
- Valencia are winless in 10 Champions League knockout matches since beating Inter Milan in the quarter-final second leg in 2002-03 – this is the longest such run in the competition’s history.
- They have also been eliminated on each of the last three occasions they have reached the last 16 (also 2010-11 v Schalke and 2012-13 v PSG).
- Atalanta are the first Champions League debutants to reach the quarter-final since Leicester City in 2016-17, and the first Italian side to do so since in their maiden campaign since Lazio in 1999-2000.
- Atalanta scored eight goals over both legs against Valencia, as many goals as they scored during the group stages of this season’s tournament.
- Valencia have given away six penalties in the Champions League since the beginning of last season, the most of any side.
- Valencia striker Kevin Gameiro is the first player to score for three different Spanish teams in the Champions League, also previously netting for Sevilla and Atletico Madrid.
With all sport in Italy suspended until at least 3 April because of coronavirus, Atalanta are not scheduled to play again until Saturday 4 April.
The trip to Cagliari (14:00 GMT) in Serie A is likely to be their only fixture before the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals, which are scheduled for 7-8 April.
Valencia are next in action when they host Levante in La Liga this Saturday (15:00 GMT).