Atalanta tear up script again with Valencia drubbing


Soccer Football - Champions League - Round of 16 First Leg - Atalanta v Valencia - San Siro, Milan, Italy - February 19, 2020 Atalanta's Hans Hateboer scores their fourth goal REUTERS/Daniele Mascolo

(Reuters) - Atalanta president Antonio Percassi believes it is never too early to start supporting the club, so he sends a replica shirt to every baby born in the hospitals of their home city Bergamo.

The idea was hatched shortly after Percassi became club president in 2010. "Love and passion for the blue and black colours should begin with the new-born and grow together with them," Atalanta say in explaining the concept.

It is one of many things that stand out about the remarkable Serie A club which has always been among the best of Italy's provincial outfits but is now scaling new heights with the team's run to the Champions League kncokout stage.

Based in a city with a population of about 120,000, Atalanta enjoyed another memorable night on Wednesday as they thumped Valencia 4-1 in their last 16, first leg -- played at Milan's San Siro because their stadium does not meet UEFA requirements -- to put a foot in the quarter-finals.

A 45,000 crowd watched the game, suggesting more than one in three Bergamo residents made the trip, although the attendance included a sizeable Valencia contingent plus fans based elsewhere.

Among the Bergamo supporters in the stadium was a boy called Edoardo who took the afternoon off school and whose absence note was retweeted by the mayor of Bergamo Giorgio Gori.

"We inform you that this afternoon Edoardo will be absent from class for cultural-historical reasons," it read. "He will be experiencing a page in the history books of Bergamo along with his dad."

Relegated three times since the turn of the century, Atalanta's fortunes picked up under Percassi but the real change came after Gian Piero Gasperini was appointed coach in 2016.

The 61-year-old is regarded as one of Italy's most tactically astute coaches who admits that he imitates others and uses "a little bit of everything".

Gasperini raised eyebrows by leading Atalanta to a best-ever fourth place finish in Serie A in 2016-17.

At that point, it was widely assumed the team would suffer the fate that usually befalls mid-ranking clubs who stick their heads above the parapet and that their best players would be sold off to bigger rivals.

But, although they have lost key players such as Franck Kessie and Roberto Gagliardini, others have stayed while newcomers, such as Colombian pair Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel, haven blossomed at Atalanta after less happy spells elsewhere.

Gasperini accepted after Wednesday's win that his team would never be considered one of the big clubs but he was not bothered.

"We wanted to prove our football is worthy and competitive in the Champions League," he said. "We want to prove that we deserve to be here."

(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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