Atalanta’s fairytale Champions League debut campaign looks set to continue into the quarter-finals after they thumped Valencia to take a commanding lead into the second leg of the last-16 tie.
Hans Hateboer, with two, Josip Ilicic and a wonder-strike from Remo Freuler saw off the two-time finalists, who were shell-shocked by the pace of their opponents in attack and their incisiveness. There is surely no way back for Albert Celades’ Spanish side.
It has already been a wonderful few months for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side, who finished third in Serie A to earn their spot in the competition and then qualified for the knockout stages despite losing their opening three group games.
Their home Champions League matches have been played at Milan’s San Siro because their Gewiss Stadium in Bergamo, which is 55km away, does not meet Uefa requirements. But once again their devoted fans made the iconic stadium their own on Wednesday.
The reported 40,000 who travelled from Bergamo should have been celebrating an opener in the eighth minute when Mario Pasalic played a one-two with Josip Ilicic but then saw his shot pushed over the bar by keeper Jaume Domenech.
However, that last line of defence was beaten soon after when Dutchman Hateboer converted Papu Gomez’s ball from close range. It was 2-0 just before the break courtesy of a fierce drive from Ilicic – the Slovenian has now scored 16 goals in all competitions this season.
Freuler then produced arguably the goal of the night with a stunning curling strike past the reach of Domenech, before the spritely Hateboer added a fourth when he galloped into the area from the right and drove a low shot into the far corner.
With a 4-0 advantage, Atalanta’s concentration dipped. Jose Luis Palomino’s backpass should have found a team-mate but was instead picked off by substitute Denis Cheryshev who struck a low shot to reduce the deficit.
The second leg is on Tuesday, 10 March.