Ilicic scores 4 as Atalanta reaches Champions League QFs
VALENCIA, Spain (AP) — Newcomer Atalanta extended its remarkable Champions League run thanks to a record-breaking night by Josip Ilicic. Ilicic became the first player to score four goals in an away knockout match in the tournament, helping Atalanta reach the quarterfinals in its debut season with a 4-3 win over Valencia on Tuesday. The match was played in an empty stadium because of the coronavirus outbreak.
With Atalanta holding a comfortable 4-1 lead from the first leg in Italy, Ilicic scored twice in each half at the deserted Mestalla Stadium as the visitors advanced 8-4 on aggregate. “Atalanta aren’t a surprise any longer,” Ilicic said. “We're doing great things and want to carry on. We want to show we deserve to be here and improve day by day.”
The 32-year-old Slovenian, who also scored in the first match, has 17 goals in his last 14 games. “I am getting better with age," Ilicic said. “I am having fun and want to carry on improving.” It didn't take long before Atalanta increased its lead from the first leg, with Ilicic converting a third-minute penalty after being fouled inside the area by Valencia defender Mouctar Diakhaby.
Forward Kevin Gameiro equalized for Valencia from inside the area in the 21st, but Ilicic virtually ended Valencia's hopes of a comeback by converting another penalty in the 43rd after a handball by Diakhaby that was awarded by video review.
The two away goals meant the hosts needed to score at least five more times to have a chance of advancing. Gameiro added Valencia's second goal with a header in the 51st and Ferrán Torres scored on a breakaway in the 67th, but Ilicic secured the win with goals from inside the area in the 71st and 82nd.
“The initial penalty obviously helped us,” Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini said. “We struggled in the first half, but did much better in the second. It's never easy against Valencia. We did many good things. We wanted to win at all costs, underlining what happened in the first leg."
Several hundred Valencia fans were outside the Mestalla to welcome Valencia's squad before the match and could be heard chanting during the game. Spain announced Tuesday all sports events with a significant number of fans have to be played in empty stadiums for the next 15 days to try to contain the spread of the coronarivus after a sharp increase in the number of cases in the country. The decision to play the Valencia game without fans had already been made in advance because of the high number of cases in Italy.
It remained unclear if Atalanta will be able to play its quarterfinal match at home amid Italy's nation-wide quarantine measures because of the virus. The team is based in Bergamo and plays its home European games at the San Siro Stadium in Milan.
Atalanta players celebrated after the match by showing a shirt with words honoring fans back home in Bergamo. After the first leg in Italy, Valencia had banned its players from all media availability because a journalist who traveled to cover the team was found to be infected with the coronavirus.
Atalanta's best European campaigns until now came when it reached the semifinals of the 1988 European Cup Winners Cup. It also made it to the quarterfinals of the 1991 UEFA Cup. Valencia was playing in the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since 2013.
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