Milan (AFP) – Josip Ilicic scored four times in a 4-3 win over Valencia to power the Champions League newcomers into the quarter-finals for a welcome boost back home in Bergamo, at the centre of Italy’s escalating coronavirus drama.
“We are very happy to have represented a region that in this period suffers so much,” said coach Gian Piero Gasperini after the team from the foothills of the Italian Alps became the first debutants to reach the last eight of the elite European competition.
“We will all celebrate together in June,” Gasperini promised the housebound fans. “Everyone united, we will beat this virus.”
Going through 8-4 on aggregate, Atalanta’s players held up a t-shirt to the TV camera after the game in an empty Mestalla Stadium, urging: “Bergamo, it’s for you. Don’t give up!”
The Lombardy region in northern Italy has been hardest-hit by coronavirus epidemic which has killed 631 people in the country, where over 10,000 have been infected.
Over 40,000 Atalanta fans — a third of Bergamo’s population — had travelled to the San Siro to see the team win the first leg 4-1 on February 19 before the virus swept through Italy.
But they were forced to watch on TV on Tuesday night, with fans heeding the club’s appeal not to gather at the airport, or in downtown Bergamo.
Supporters also opted to forego their reimbursements for the game in Spain, asking that the money, estimated at 60,000 euros ($68,000), be donated to a local hospital.
The party, however, went ahead on social networks, with fans cheering behind closed doors with the team’s colours flying from windows.
“It was the only thing we could do, win and give a smile in such a difficult moment for Italy and for my city,” wrote defender Mattia Caldara on Instagram.
“We are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, congratulations to all.”
“Thanks you, Dea (Goddess),” wrote daily Gazzetta Dello Sport, using the club’s nickname. “Historic joy for Bergamo in the darkest hours.”
– Stunning Ilicic –
It was stunning individual display by Ilicic, nicknamed ‘granny’, who has had the best season of his career aged 32 years, a decade after arriving in Serie A at Palermo. He joined Atalanta in 2017 from Fiorentina.
“The older I get, the better I play it’s true,” said the Slovenian international who overtakes Zlatan Ibrahmovic as the oldest player to score a Champions League hat-trick away.
Ilicic has scored 21 goals in 29 appearances in all competitions this season.
And having also scored in the first leg he joins Ballon d’Or winners Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the only players to score five or more goals over two legs of a Champions League knockout tie.
“Already after the match in Milan I said that Atalanta is no longer a surprise,” said Ilicic.
“We want to continue like this. Our goal is to show that we deserve where we are now.”
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 City at the San Siro sparked a revival that led to them finishing seven points behind the Premier League side in second to reach the knockout stage.
Fourth in Serie A, Atalanta will now have to wait before returning to the pitch with all sport in Italy suspended until April 3 in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus.