This is likely the least interesting tie for many neutrals, but there is still plenty to talk about. We’ll be seeing everyone’s new favourite hipster club; Atalanta, face off against one of La Liga’s most talked about clubs; Valencia. Both have a strong chance to reach the quarter finals, so let’s look at who will be advancing.
We’ll start with Atalanta, who I’ve anticipated to see in this competition for years. They were so close back in 2017, finishing fourth (finishing fourth meant Europa League back then, but was changed recently to allow four teams in Italy to qualify). They finally made it, after finishing 3rd and being the best attacking team in Italy, topping the league for shots, chances created and expected goals. Gasperini formed a team full of Serie A journeymen and small fee signings throughout Europe. The likes of Duvan Zapata and Josip Illicic have played throughout the decade, but are at their peak in terms out output, near the end of their careers.
As mentioned, Atalanta’s biggest strength is their attack. They top Serie A for xG, surprisingly ahead of Lazio (Atalanta have 55.7; Lazio have 45.1), who have the top scorer and assister in Ciro Immobile and Luis Alberto respectively. La Dea also top the league for passes into the penalty area and shot assists. Gasperini as built a side that uses a three at the back formation different to how it’s usually intended. The Italian coach uses it to give his attackers as much freedom from defensive duties as possible. Zapata, Illicic and Gomez are the best forward line in Italy. Zapata has been fantastic since joining the Nerazzurri, scoring 23 goals in his debut season. He has gotten less minutes this season down to an injury he picked up on international duty (pointless friendlies strike again). Thankfully, Luis Muriel, a summer signing from Sevilla, has been a healthy contributor, scoring 12 goals and only behind Illicic for top scorer. Both Illicic and Gomez are easily the team’s most important players. Both are in the top five in Italy for passes into the penalty area and shot assists, with Gomez actually ahead of Alberto (granted by a single shot assist).
Martin De Roon still does a lot of work in terms of defensive actions, topping the team for tackles and interceptions, while Remo Freuler is a very good progressor of the ball, even if he’s dropped off slightly this season. The wing-backs offer a lot in terms of creativity as well. Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens don’t contribute many defensive actions, but give the side plenty of width, which further allows the forward three freedom to create and score.
Yet, while Atalanta’s domestic form is fantastic, their first Champions League campaign started in awful fashion. They lost their first three games, humiliated by Dynamo Zagreb and Manchester City and losing at home to Shakhtar Donetsk. One of the best attacking teams in Europe only managed to score 2 goals and conceded 11. While some teams in Italy might be better than Zagreb and Shakhtar, their opposition have European experience in terms of preparation. The problem Atalanta had was how their opponents exposed their biggest weakness; dribbling. Gasperini deploys a man-marking system. This means when a player is beaten, the system falls apart. Atalanta’s players were beaten though dribbling more than any other team in the group stages. Dani Olmo, Bruno Petkovic, Marlos, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne all had their best performances in the competition when facing the Nerazzurri. A lot of teams in Serie A simply don’t have the players to take advantage of this weakness, but when playing European teams, three of which were league champions, make it easier to exploit.
Gasperini somehow managed to turn this whole disasterous campaign around with a massive 180. Atalanta went on to win two of their final three games, and thanks to Manchester City beating Dynamo Zagreb, Atalanta were able to qualify for the round of sixteen on the first try. Luck went their way, and their attack finally started to put their chances away. It’s good to see an objectively good team in the round of sixteen, one of which that could shock a lot of neutrals.
Let’s move on to Valencia, who are the worst team left in the competition. I doubt that will raise any eyebrows, considering the only other team left who are just as bad are Lyon or arguably Atletico Madrid.
Valencia had the most unfortunate season I can remember in 18/19. For the first four months of the season, they couldn’t buy themselves a win. By the end of November, Los Ches were fifteenth in the table, when xG shows they should have been in the top four. Their poor results were mainly down to their strikers running cold for months, drawing a lot of games where they should’ve gotten the three points. Marcelino, as well as their misfortune running out, got them back on track, eventually finishing in the top four and winning the Copa Del Rey.
Talking about results and performances is what I should be doing at this point, but it’s hard to talk about Valencia without discussing Marcelino’s sacking. The fact that the former Villarreal coach managed to take one of the worst run clubs in Spain to back to back fourth place finishes is a massive achievement. Yet, Marcelino was sacked at the beginning of September, after clear disagreements with the the owner, Peter Lim. Marcelino was well liked by the fans, so sacking so early in the season did not go down well, with #LimGoHome trending on Twitter. What made things even worse for Lim is when Marcelino revealed why he thought he was fired:
“I’m convinced the Copa del Rey was a trigger (for my sacking).”
Marcelino, the rest of the coaching staff and the players all wanted to fight for the copa, while Lim showed little interest in adding something to his club’s trophy cabinet. The Champions League was obviously the priority for Lim because of the money, but fans and players rarely win silverware in Spain unless you’re Barcelona or one of the Madrid Clubs. Winning a domestic cup, one that Barcelona have dominated for years, gave the Valencia fans and players something to celebrate.
Marcelino’s sacking not only annoyed the fans, but also the players. They refused to attend the pre match press conference before the Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, to show their frustration towards the current situation. Valencia lack talent in their squad (which we’ll come onto), so angering the best coach you’ve had in years is a baffling move.
Back to the football, where there isn’t much good to say. Valencia haven’t been good this season, currently sitting in 7th but only two points behind Atletico Madrid in fourth. Similar to the Bundesliga, a race for top four has materialised from the established clubs underperforming, with two mid-table clubs (in this case Real Sociedad and Getafe) having closed the gap and given the top clubs some real competition for the Champions League places. The current state of this squad is incredibly underwhelming. Dani Parejo has still been fantastic as ever, but no one else is performing at his level. They only manage 9.4 shots per game and possess one of the worst xG differences in the league, with their -7.4 placing them in the bottom half of the table. The approach of relying on their goalkeeper to produce save after save, defend deep and supply their pretty talented forwards isn’t encouraging, when the teams ahead of them in the table have an effect way of playing, whether it’s Sociedad young, fun attack or Getafe with their insane organisation.
A lot of it can be blamed on misfortune. Gonçalo Guedes and Geoffrey Kondogbia, two of their best performers in their impressive 17/18 season, have missed a lot of football. They’ve missed 37 and 32 games respectively since the start of 18/19. Guedes has just came back from a lengthy ankle injury, while Kondogbia has missed a lot of football through recurrent hamstring problems. The pair just aren’t at the level they were two years ago, and couple that with Gameiro missing these game and Garay missing the rest of the season, then it’s pretty clear Valencia could be better.
You look at this fixture on paper and it’s pretty clear Atalanta should walk all over this Valencia team, but I have my reservations. Albert Celades’ side managed to escape the most competitive group, containing last year’s semi-finalists Ajax, Frank Lampard’s young Chelsea side and Ligue 1 runners-up Lille. I thought Ajax were comfortably the favourites, with the fight for second between Chelsea and Lille. Yet Valencia managed to progress. Their second place finish is primarily down to luck, but they still deserve some praise. They took advantage of Chelsea’s poor defending at set-pieces and managed to win at Stamford Bridge through a Rodrigo goal. Rodrigo was gifted another goal in a 0-1 win, this time in Amsterdam. Valencia’s league form is inconsistent to put it nicely, but their performances in Europe, especially away from home, do make it difficult to argue against them deserving to being here.
This will be their biggest advantage when facing Atalanta. Rodrigo’s pace and Maxi Gomez’s aerial threat give them some versatility upfront. Valencia play pretty direct, using Parejo’s vision from open play and set-pieces to pick out the forwards. He’s only attempted 32 passes less than 5 yards, showing his main role is moving the ball into the final third through riskier passes. The Valencia captain is actaully fourth in the whole of La Liga for passes into the final third.
I do think if Cillessen makes his usual amount of miracle saves and forwards convert the minimal chances they create, Valencia will have a shot at reaching the quarter finals. But when you consider their opponent have the best attack in Italy and only behind Manchester City in the whole of Europe, it’s hard not to back Le Dea. Valencia are likely to come back with something in the first leg, but I fully back Gasperini and his players to show the Spanish side exactly why everyone can’t stop raving about them.