'Chasing the dream': Atalanta ride wave of remarkable run in Champions League

Emmeline MOORE
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Atalanta are through to the Champions League last 16 on their tournament debut

Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta are counting on the wave of enthusiasm generated by the Italian outsiders remarkable run in their Champions League debut season to surge past Spanish club Valencia in the knockout rounds.

The team from Bergamo in the foothills of the Italian Alps take on Valencia on Wednesday in the last 16, first leg, at the 80,000-seater San Siro, which has nearly four times the capacity of their home stadium, 55 kilometres away.

"This is a game that we have been waiting months for," said Gasperini.

"Being able to play on front of so many of our fans at a venue like San Siro is a beautiful achievement that we have been waiting a long time for.

"The Champions League is a dream which we'll try to carry forward as much as possible.

"The whole city of Bergamo is practically travelling to Milan."

The team's stunning run comes despite losing their opening three Champions League group games, including 4-0 away to Dinamo Zagreb before a 5-1 loss at Manchester City.

But a 1-1 draw against Man City in the San Siro sparked the revival of 'La Dea' (The Goddess) who finished seven points behind the Premier League side in second to reach the knockout stage.

Atalanta's confidence has been further boosted after seeing off AS Roma 2-1 in a cauldron atmosphere on front of their home crowd at their Atleti Azzurri d'Italia stadium on Saturday.

The victory consolidated fourth place in Serie A, six points ahead of the side from the capital and bolstered their hopes of Champions League next season.

"This victory gives us confidence for the next games, it was a fundamental clash to be won," said Mario Pasalic who came off the bench and hit the match winner 19 seconds later.

Their current form is a remarkable achievement for a club with a modest budget compared to rivals Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan.

Their transformation follows the arrival of Gasperini in the summer of 2016 from Genoa.

The 62-year-old previously coached Crotone, Palermo and briefly Inter Milan, where he was sacked after a run of five winless Serie A games and just one point.

- 'Extraordinary period' -

The team -- founded 113 years ago by a group of students from a local school and named after Atalanta, a huntress in Greek mythology -- had been relegated in 2003, 2005 and 2010.

Gasperini guided them to a fourth-place finish in his first season to qualify for the Europa League.

Last season they finished third, powered by Colombian Duvan Zapata's 23 league goals, and qualified for the Champions League for the first time.

"I think there are a series of elements that now allow this team to chase after the dream," said Gasperini.

"We have been playing at a very high level for three or four years.

"It's an extraordinary period of Atalanta."

Atalanta have the best attack in the league with 63 goals scored -- 17 more than Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus.

Zapata's three-month injury absence did not hurt the team.

"It gave us the opportunity to experiment with other solutions and it gives the opposition defence few reference points," explained Gasperini.

Luis Muriel was supported up front by Pasalic and Ruslan Malinovskyi.

Slovenian Josip Ilicic, 32, has already outperformed his pervious best season in Serie A with 14 goals in 20 games, including a hat-trick and three braces.

Colombian Muriel has scored 12 goals, with Zapata on eight, followed by Robin Gosens (7) and Papu Gomez (6) and Pasalic (5).

Despite 32 goals conceded in 24 league games, Gasperini sees this defensive weakness as a motivator.

"When we are under, we play better because we remove every inhibitor brake," said Gasperini.

The Italian upstarts are hoping to mete out more pain on their rivals.

"Playing Atalanta is like going to the dentist, it's really, really tough," said Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola after being held 1-1 in the San Siro.