Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 11/8
Valencia are set to welcome Atalanta to the Mestalla stadium for the second leg of their Champions League round-of-16 encounter. The Italians come to Spain with a tangible advantage, having won the first leg in Milan by 4-1. The game will be played behind closed doors, with the Spanish authorities adamant that they’re doing everything in their power to prevent the spread of the infamous Corona Virus. That, unfortunately, includes forbidding mass gatherings of people, at places and events such as top-level football games.
Valencia are the ones that will surely feel the impact of the emergency measure the most. It was their turn to enjoy the benefits of vocal home support, but they’ll now have to make do without it. As if chasing a three-goal lead wasn’t enough of a burden ahead of the game.
The team’s form hasn’t been great lately either. They only managed to win one of their last five La Liga games with the Atalanta defeat squeezed in the middle, a 2-1 triumph over Real Betis. They suffered 3-0 defeats at the hands of Getafe and Real Sociedad, and squeezed out a point each against Atletico Madrid (2-2) and Alaves (1-1).
Valencia are still in with a shot of Champions League football for next season. They are currently seventh with 42 points to their name after 27 rounds, only five and four less than Sevilla and Getafe in third and fourth place, respectively, but the likes of Atletico (fifth, 45) and Sociedad (sixth, 43) will also have a say on the matter. Valencia will have to improve their results manifold to even hope of finishing above all of these teams, but on the flip side, they’re unlikely to keep the distraction the Champions League has been from this point on.
Head coach Albert Celades will be happy that forward Manu Vallejo and defender Cristiano Piccini are back in training following injury absences. On the other hand, defender Ezequiel Garay is out for the season, and forward Maxi Gomez isn’t expected back in contention until early April. Defender Elaquim Mangala is struggling with illness, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll overcome it in time for this game.
Atalanta’s success has recently caused quite a stir in Italy. Having surprised a lot of people with Champions League qualification last season, they’re on course to repeat the feat, sitting in fourth place with three points more and a game in hand over AS Roma in fifth. And unlike that of Valencia, Atalanta’s form has recently been fantastic as well.
After drawing 2-2 against Genoa, they’ve beaten Fiorentina 1-2 away, Roma 2-1 at home, Valencia 4-1 in the first leg, and thrashed Lecce away by 2-7. With the prospect of facing a hostile atmosphere at the Mestalla removed, they’ll be coming to Spain with great confidence.
Atalanta’s success hasn’t been universally applauded, however. Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli recently questioned if a team like Atalanta should be allowed to play in the Champions League based on ‘one good season’, with no European history to back them up. Agnelli feels that ‘investment should be protected’, though it seems he is actually jealous of Atalanta for having more chance of progressing to the quarterfinals than his club, who lost the first leg 1-0 away to Olympique Lyon.
The words of the Juventus chairman underline a sense of entitlement from the rich clubs, and even though they make no sense whatsoever from a competitive point of view, the likes of Atalanta, who work hard and achieve success with relatively limited budgets, are probably looking at a long and hard battle for acknowledgement in years to come.
Manager Gian Piero Gasperini will have to wait until the last possible moment to make a decision on the involvement of defender Rafael Toloi, who is in a race against time to recover from a muscle issue.
Other than for pride, it’s hard to see where Valencia will find motivation for this game. They need to score at least three goals without conceding, which doesn’t look very likely. An away win here and an Atalanta double over the La Liga side feels like the likeliest outcome.
Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 11/8
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