So it’s not exactly Real Madrid-Manchester City, or even Borussia Dortmund-PSG, but Wednesday’s battle between Serie A side Atalanta and La Liga club Valencia is an interesting one (even if we have it ranked seventh of eight round of 16 match-ups in terms of watchability). And one of these two squads might even have a serious shot to pull another upset or two if they make it to the quarters — and I’m not talking about Valencia.
Let’s start with a quick look back at how Atalanta and Valencia got here.
Prior to group play, it was hard to imagine Valencia advancing at the expense of either Ajax or Chelsea. It was also hard to predict which team out of Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb would join City as the other club advancing from Group C.
But here they both are after Valencia won a wild Group H and Atalanta enjoyed the luck of being in the only group where seven points was good enough for second place.
*whispers* This year’s Ajax??
In losing their first three in group play – including a 4-0 (!) loss to Dinamo Zagreb — and drawing their fourth game, against City, before winning their last two, Atalanta showed off both their floor and their ceiling. We identified them as a team to watch in group play because of their high-octane offense a year ago. Sure enough, this team still scores like few other clubs in Europe.
A year after leading Serie A with 77 goals in 38 games and finishing third in Italy, the offense is even better domestically, as they’ve piled up 63 goals in 24 games.* Even with a not-great defense (32 goals allowed in 24 Serie A games), their goal differential is a very impressive +31.
These guys are literally on pace to push 100 goals (99.75, to be exact). Need I say more about this offense? Even City – with 65 goals in 25 EPL games (and granted, that’s in a superior league) – thinks that’s impressive.
Domestically, Josip Ilicic (14 goals) and Luis Muriel (12) could finish the season as two of just five players with double-digit goals. Duván Zapata (8), Robin Gosens (7) and Alejandro Gómez (6) might all hit that milestone as well. Is it just me, or is that an absurd amount of scoring?
Two more things about this offense before we address Atalanta’s Achilles’ heel.
- They don’t just pile up the goals vs. the bottom of the table. Against first-place Juve this season, Atalanta lost 3-1, but they drew second-place Lazio 3-3 and third-place Inter Milan 1-1. Nothing wrong with five goals in three games against the best teams, and defenses, in their league.
- What does xG tell us about this offense? With a total xG of 59, you can’t call their domestic output fluky.
Does the so-so defense doom them?
Champions League group play, which included the 4-0 loss to Dinamo and a 5-1 loss to City, threw up some red flags. However, they gave up just one goal in their final three to break out of the early funk. So maybe this is a defense that’s more inconsistent than bad? Also, does the so-so defense that Borussia Dortmund (32 goals allowed in 22 Bundesliga games) plays mean they’re not a threat? Didn’t think so.
That’s not to say that preventing goals isn’t important, but Tottenham showed us last year that you can make a run while being less than impenetrable on the back line. Atalanta are also not exactly facing a Bayern Munich- or Liverpool-level of offense against Valencia.
Can Valencia grind out another surprising result?
When you look at their lack of weapons – Maxi Gómez leads the way with nine goals in La Liga, and is not exactly the world’s most feared forward – and disappointing offensive output (35 goals through 24 games domestically), it’s hard to understand how they’re here. And it’s safe to say that if Atalanta is itself offensively, Valencia won’t be able to keep up.
But on paper, they were overmatched in last year’s Copa del Rey final vs. Barcelona (they won). And in group play, they were the underdog in four games vs. Ajax and Chelsea. We saw how that worked out, as they captured seven of 12 possible points from those games and beat Ajax in Amsterdam to win the group.
They also beat Barcelona 2-0 on January 25 and drew Atleti 2-2 last Friday. What I’m saying is don’t count these guys out, even if we all know which of these teams would be more fun to watch in the quarters and beyond.
*We’re focusing on Atalanta’s work in Serie A here because their Champions League group featured four games against Shakhtar and Dinamo.