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After hundreds of millions in investment, all with the express aim of winning the Champions League, after seven consecutive seasons stranding in either the quarterfinals or the round of 16, after months of preparations for this particular game, here was another chance for Paris Saint-Germain to get over the hump. To finally reach the semifinals of Europe’s elite club competition for the first time since 1995, long before its Qatari owners bought it as a global prestige play.
Yet in a lot of ways, things weren’t ideal for PSG.
Superstar striker Kylian Mbappe wasn’t fully fit and didn’t enter the game until the 60th minute. Forward Angel Di Maria was injured, as was playmaker Marco Verratti. Stalwarts Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier had left the club on free transfers, refusing to stick around through the end of the season.
PSG had played in just two competitive games in five months, after the French league decided to call off the remainder of its season during the COVID-19 pandemic — whereas every other major European league resumed its remaining slate of games.
And UEFA’s decision to make this Portugal-based finale to the Champions League campaign a series of straight knockout games starting with the quarterfinals, rather than the traditional two-leg ties, favored upsets by underdogs like Atalanta.
All the same, PSG must have been delighted to draw little Atalanta in the quarterfinals, even though the previously unremarkable Bergamo club has now placed third in consecutive Serie A seasons under Gian Piero Gasperini.
Atalanta was the Cinderella team of this European season. In spite of losing its first three games of the group stage, it advanced and then stunned Valencia with a 8-4 aggregate victory in the round of 16. The first game of that series was held in Milan to accommodate more fans. It came to be known as Game Zero, a super-spreader event of the coronavirus, quietly raging through Northern Italy. Bergamo became an epicenter of the pandemic.
On paper, Atalanta was wholly overmatched. In reality, it clung on to a narrow 1-0 lead until the 90th minute, when PSG scored two in quick succession to win 2-1 and avoid extra time, advancing to the semifinal at last, ending its run of futility.
Still, the contrast between the sides was stark. Atalanta remained the team that was organized and tuned just right, like a fine instrument. PSG relied on a vindicating flash or two from a star. The trouble with this plan is that the biggest of those stars, Neymar, wasted a handful of tantalizing scoring chances. Mbappe, after coming on, squandered a few of his own. And if the Italians were wholly overrun in the late going as PSG pleaded desperately with the soccer gods for a winner and a European breakthrough, their game plan seemed to work out regardless.
Because in the end, the gods finally answered PSG in the final breaths of the game, when Neymar and Mbappe were instrumental in setting up Marquinhos and Eric Choupo-Moting for close-range finishes to win 2-1.
But for the first half and change of the game, Atalanta played its signature high defensive line in possession. It was constantly exposed, but Gasperini refused to adjust. This was their way of playing, and they were either going to win that way or they were going to be eliminated that way. But it would be their way in any case.
It made for a wide-open game. Not a particularly good game, but a very compelling one.
Just three minutes in, Neymar combined with Mauro Icardi from a goal kick and was through on goal by himself. But he missed the target. By a lot. Everybody witnessing it, near or far, was left absolutely astounded.
Atalanta, meanwhile, began forging chances of its own. Hans Hateboer came close with a diving, bouncing header at the far post, saved handsomely by Keylor Navas.
Atalanta pressed and pressed, playing their own, fluid, fearless, marvelous game. And after Neymar was again dispatched through the line but botched whatever it was he attempted — it was hard to tell, a cross to Icardi or a shot — Mario Pasalic scored the opening goal. A loose ball from a broken attack rolled to Pasalic, who swept it around the busy Navas.
From there, it was mostly one-way traffic to Atalanta’s goal. Neymar intercepted a hateful ball from Hateboer and completely shanked the uncontested finish. And then Mbappe and Neymar took turns teeing off on promising attacks.
But neither man breached the goal line. And nor did anybody else, inasmuch as they were allowed to participate in PSG’s all-or-nothing ploy, until the 90th minute.
That’s when Marquinhos redirected Neymar’s mishit from close range.
And in the 95th, Neymar fed Mbappe on the run, who squared for Choupo-Moting to convert the winner.
It all turned out the way it was supposed to in the end, but for an hour and a half, Atalanta flirted with another miracle as PSG tangled with the failures of its past.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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