Best odds: 29/10
Bookmaker: William Hill
Champions League football returns to the scene today (Tuesday) as the knockout round begins with Atletico Madrid welcoming title defenders Liverpool for the round-of-16 first leg to the Wanda Metropolitano where the Reds won last season’s final, and Paris Saint-Germain travel to the Signal Iduna Park to meet Borussia Dortmund.
The roller coaster will then move on to Wednesday, when Tottenham Hotspur play host to RB Leipzig at their new stadium in North London, but here we take a look at the clash between Atalanta and Valencia, set to take place at the Giuseppe Meazza stadium in Milan.
Atalanta surprised a lot of people by finishing in the top four in Serie A last season, thus qualifying for this season’s Champions League. But what’s arguably even more surprising is the fact that so far they are managing to maintain that level, sitting fourth in the Italian top flight at the moment with 45 points from 24 games so far. It’s likely to be a tight race for that last place leading into UEFA’s elite club competition, with AS Roma six points behind and as many as 14 rounds yet to be played, but not as tight as it could have been – the gap was only three points before Atalanta beat Roma directly on Saturday. Looking above, they don’t seem to have much chance of climbing further – the top three (Juventus, Lazio and Inter Milan) are engaged in a battle of their own, one that will see the winner wearing the Scudetto on their shirts next season.
Atalanta’s last five league games saw them suffer a shocking defeat at home against SPAL, then completely annihilate Torino in Turin, draw at home against Genoa, beat Fiorentina in Florence, before eventually getting the better of Roma.
Back in Europe, Atalanta navigated through a rather tricky group, finishing second to Premier League champions Manchester City and above the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb, which only goes to show the domestic success as worthy of respect even more.
Apart from centre-back Bosko Sutalo, who hasn’t played a single competitive game this season but should return from an ankle injury in a few days, head coach Gian Piero Gasperini has the full squad at his disposal.
Unlike in Italy, the battle for the European places in Spain is set to involve a number of contestants, with six clubs, positioned from places three to eight, squeezed within a five-point gap. Valencia are seventh at the moment with 38 to their name, as many as Villarreal in sixth, but Getafe (third, 42), Atletico Madrid (fourth, 40), Sevilla (fifth, 40) and Real Sociedad (eighth, 37) will all be fighting for the two spots behind title contenders Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Like Atalanta, Valencia have pulled a few surprises this season too, especially when they beat Barcelona at the Mestalla a few weeks ago. On the other hand, their recent form hasn’t been that great. They were knocked out of the Copa del Rey in the quarterfinals by Granada, while in La Liga they followed the triumph over Barcelona with one over Celta Vigo, a defeat away to Getafe, and a home 2-2 draw against Atletico on Friday last week.
However, in the Champions League, Valencia did very well in the group stages. They just edged out Chelsea for the top spot, with Ajax trailing by a single point in third and Lille nailed to the bottom.
There are quite a few players unavailable for coach Albert Celades to pick for this game. Defenders Gabriel Paulista and Ezequiel Garay are out through suspension and injury respectively. Midfiedler Francis Coquelin and forward Rodrigo Moreno are doubts.
This will be an interesting contest between two teams whose styles may be different, but the quality of each is not too far from that of the other. It perhaps slightly goes into Valencia’s favor, but over 180 minutes, anything is possible. The Spanish team will probably see Atalanta’s slightly poorer home form as a good opportunity to earn a good result, but both sides are likely to take a cautious approach and not risk too much. A draw is perhaps the likeliest outcome, with not too many goals.
Best odds: 29/10
Bookmaker: William Hill
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