History was made by Atalanta, a team who make football fun, but there was virtually no one there to see it. Four more goals were scored by Gian Piero Gasperini’s side as they progressed to the quarter-finals in their first season in the Champions League having defeated Valencia 8-4 on aggregate, a 4-3 victory in Spain following the 4-1 win at San Siro a fortnight ago.
At the final whistle they gathered in the centre of the pitch, posed for a photo and celebrated, every word of it audible, while their opponents headed swiftly down the tunnel and out of Europe.
As they broke, Josip Ilicic signalled for the ball he so thoroughly deserved. He too had made history, becoming the first player to score four goals away from home in this competition. At the end of the night there should have been applause, a standing ovation for him. There should have been for his teammates too, a side who care nothing for orthodoxy, preferring always to attack. And maybe even for Valencia who had at least made this enjoyable. Instead, there was silence.
It had all played out before an empty stadium, closed because of the coronavirus outbreak. It was to their credit that these two teams had made it this good, but there was something missing – and you could not help wondering how much better it might have been with people there. Four goals from Ilicic, two from Kevin Gameiro and one from Ferran Torres deserved an audience, even if Valencia always knew the task before them was too great. A 4-1 lead would have been hard enough to overturn anyway; without their fans it was always likely to be impossible.
When Valencia’s bus arrived at Mestalla it was greeted by hundreds of supporters, singing and swirling their scarves. The aim was to create a communion, the culture needed for a comeback, which they knew could not last. None of them could get in the ground but while most then made their way home, some chose instead to stay and watch the game from the cluster of bars on Avenida Suecia outside – highlighting one potential flaw in the idea of playing behind closed doors.
From there, it seemed, the players could hear them singing. But the quality of the sound soon suggested that some of these chants were pre-recorded and played out over the PA system. First, though, it breathlessly announced the lineups to … who exactly? Then they blasted out the Champions League anthem. While in the centre circle that tarpaulin shaped like a ball was lifted and waggled about, just like it always is. It had barely been packed away when Valencia’s hopes had been, too.
Mouctar Diakhaby gave away two penalties, both unnecessary, and any belief Valencia had that they could turn this around had gone in pretty much 60 seconds: 1.25 the clock said when Diakhaby brought down Ilicic, the night’s outstanding player. The Slovenian got up and scored to make it 1-0, 5-2 on aggregate, watched by the only fan inside Mestalla: Vicente Navarro, a blind supporter who passed away a few years ago but a statute of him occupies his seat and it sat, alone, in the stand.
Otherwise, there were a few directors, players and coaching staff, some officials, a handful of ball boys and a solitary steward at each end, and that was it. In one stand a huge, club-designed banner said: “Our hearts and our support, always in Mestalla”. If the fans could be heard from outside and from the loud speakers, on the television sets upon which everyone everywhere had to watch, you could certainly hear the players: every kick, every shout echoing around.
When Ilicic prepared to take the first penalty the referee, Ovidiu Hategan, could clearly be heard telling told Jasper Cillessen to stay on his line. “I’m good,” he replied, but he was not and nor was this. It is not just the stadium that is empty, it is the whole thing. However good a match this ended up being – and it really was very good indeed – it was not a match in these conditions. Attempts to palliate the absence of fans, who are everything, with piped-in chants and paraphernalia made it more pathetic somehow, oddly surreal.
As an exhibition, it was very enjoyable. As a competition it was over already, although there was so, so much still come. Rodrigo Moreno had drawn an early save and Valencia drew level on 20 minutes, when Gameiro went around the goalkeeper and scored. Outside the ground were signs of life, a delayed cheer.
Inside, though, Atalanta still carried most of the weight of the game. Francois Coquelin and Cillessen both had to react fast to deny Ilicic. Diakhaby, by contrast, invited him back in: an unwisely outstretched gifted another penalty before half-time, from which Ilicic made it 2-1. Diakhaby did not come back out for the second half, replaced by Gonçalo Guedes. Valencia were going to try this at least, even though they needed five.
They got two. Thing is, so did Atalanta. Gameiro headed in Torres’s cross before Torres lobbed Valencia into the lead, but it did not last. Ilicic combined with Duván Zapata, stepped away from Dani Parejo and scored his third. Then, with nine minutes left bend in a historic fourth. At the very end, Gameiro might have scored the hat-trick that would have meant sharing the ball, a memento from an odd night, but his shot rebounded back off the goalkeeper, the sound echoing around an empty arena.