The Champions League knockout stages produce great drama and the single-game format for this season’s quarter-finals intensified the emotions as Paris St Germain struck twice in the final minutes to end the fairytale for debutants Atalanta.
Although the team from Bergamo, the Italian town of around 120,000, had never qualified for the Champions League before, they were moments away from humbling the financial powerhouse of PSG, backed by the oil wealth of the club’s Qatari owners.
Then PSG struck twice, with Brazilian defender Marquinhos scoring in the 90th minute before substitute Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting decided the contest in stoppage time.
Atalanta’s hopes of glory were suddenly snatched from their grasp and the sense of destiny, of romance, that had surrounded Gian Piero Gasperini’s team suddenly evaporated into the night air at the empty Estadio da Luz.
There was no second leg, no away goals calculation, nothing other than the finality of defeat, of history being rewritten in a matter of seconds.
It was so cruel on the Italian side, who had worked so hard and had taken the lead with a beautiful 27th-minute goal from their Croatia midfielder Mario Pasalic.
But when Atalanta finally reflects on the loss they will surely acknowledge that they had been helped by some wasteful finishing by PSG, in particular from their Brazil striker Neymar, and the alert goalkeeping of Marco Sportiello.
Whatever memories Atalanta fans have of this defeat, they won’t include celebrating their goal in the stands or singing to console their heroes who collapsed on the turf at the final whistle.
Due to the COVID-19 related restrictions, there were no supporters of either team inside the 64,000 capacity stadium and so the biggest night of Atalanta’s 112-year history was one of frustration in front of the television for their supporters.
A handful of the most passionate had, inevitably, made the trip to Lisbon anyway, choosing to at least be close to the hope-for miracle, watching in bars in the Portuguese capital.
Some made their way out to the stadium before the game to greet the players as they arrived on their bus at the gates to the stadium, which is the home of Benfica, providing Gasperini’s men with a reminder of who they were playing for.
“It is a strong emotion. I’ve been watching Atalanta for 40 years and I couldn’t miss this game, even if you can’t enter the stadium,” Manuel Colombo, bedecked in a black and blue striped facemask, told Reuters.
“Time moves forward. Who knows whether we will ever get a game like this again?” he added.
But throughout the long build-up to this game, since the Champions League was suspended in March, the particularly strong impact of the novel coronavirus on Bergamo has been present in the thoughts of those involved with the club.
At the height of the virus outbreak, Bergamo’s hospitals were overwhelmed with infected people and, with morgues unable to keep up, convoys of army trucks carrying away the dead became a chilling symbol of the global pandemic.
Colombo paused before reflecting on that aspect of Atalanta’s campaign and his journey to Lisbon.
“We have to think today about those people who died due to COVID before their time, those many grandparents who took their grandchildren to see Atalanta for the first time and who aren’t with us anymore. I am thinking about them above all,” he said.
This Atalanta team will still be remembered as heroes by Colombo and all the club’s fans, having gifted the ‘Bergamaschi’ an unimaginable season of success in a year of such pain.
But those neutrals who felt robbed of a story of football romance can take some solace in the smile on the face of the unlikely match-winner Cameroon international Choupo-Moting.
The 31-year-old, who signed on a free transfer after suffering relegation from the English Premier League with Stoke City and originally left out of PSG’s squad for the Champions League knockout stages, was the toast of Paris.
Such a pity that no fans were there to witness it.