Soccer’s European elite return to UEFA Champions League action on Friday August 7th after a covid-induced break. Twelve teams remain with a chance of being crowned champions of Europe, and in this UEFA Champions League Preview mini-series I will give you the lowdown on the squads itching to etch their names into footballing immortality.
Let’s do this alphabetically, starting with one of this years surprise packages, Italian side Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio (or Atalanta B.C. for short).
A somewhat unfamiliar name in world soccer, Atalanta – nicknamed La Dea (The Goddess) – qualified for this year’s tournament for the first time in their 112 year history.
The Serie A side currently sit second in the Italian top flight and are managed by veteran Head Coach Gian Piero Gasperini, and are widely admired for their attractive, rock ‘n’ roll brand of soccer.
They have scored 93 league goals (yes, NINETY-THREE) so far this season with attackers Luis Muriel (17), Duvan Zapata (16) and Josip Ilicic (15) all posting impressive individual numbers – testament to Gasperini’s buccaneering style of play.
But, in terms of the UCL, they were drawn into a tricky Group C back in August, alongside mega-rich English giants Manchester City and UCL regulars FC Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine, and Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia. La Dea remarkably qualified from the group in second place, after losing their opening three games.
In the Round of 16 Atalanta faced a Valencia side who themselves had overcome a difficult group, besting Chelsea, Ajax and Lille to qualify in pole position.
However, Atalanta did what Atalanta do. They scored goals, and lots of them. An 8-4 aggregate win after a 4-1 victory at home and a 4-3 triumph away saw the stylish side storm into the quarter finals.
And that’s where we are now, a one-off Quarter Final face-off against a scary looking PSG side boasting a squad full of global superstars, Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappe to name but a couple. Will the plucky UCL first-timers have enough in them to knock out one of the world’s biggest clubs? Honestly, I think it’s more than possible. But, time will tell – Wednesday 12th August.
Next up in the UEFA Champions League Preview are two time finalists, Atletico Madrid. A household name that needs no introduction to fans of European football.
Often seen as the less attractive and less talented sibling of cross-city rivals Real Madrid, Diego Simeone’s men have garnered huge global respect for their tactical organisation, defensive capabilities and ability to grind out important results.
The Madridians were this year drawn into Group D, alongside ex-Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus, plucky German side Bayer Leverkusen and last year’s Russian league runner’s up Lokomotiv Moscow.
Atleti qualified comfortably in second place to set up a Round of 16 clash against last year’s UCL winners, and this season’s Premier League champions, Liverpool.
A 1-0 victory at the Wanda Metropolitano meant that Simeone’s men headed to Anfield with a precious lead – one they could defend. But the events that transpired in front of the Kop were almost un-Atletico like, outscoring one of Europe’s deadliest attacks – on their own turf.
A 3-2 win on the night secured a 4-2 aggregate victory for Atletico Madrid and sent shockwaves across Europe – Simeone’s side can play against the very best, and more importantly they can win.
Atletico Madrid face German side RB Leipzig in the Quarter Finals on Thursday August 13th and will be quietly comfortable going toe to toe with Julian Nagelsmann’s team and making it through to the Semi Finals. This year, Los Colchoneros (the mattress makers) certainly aren’t a side to be slept on.