With their Europa League tie finely balanced following last week’s first leg, Atalanta BC and RB Leipzig reconvene in Bergamo on Thursday evening.
The opening game of the sides’ quarter-final clash produced a 1-1 draw in Germany, and while the Bundesliga club continued their recent revival at the weekend, their hosts continue to stumble in Serie A – losing a second successive game to slip down to eighth.
After they overcame another attack-minded German outfit, Bayer Leverkusen, in the previous round, Atalanta were pitted against a team from the same nation in last month’s draw for the Europa League last eight, and their first leg at the Red Bull Arena did not disappoint.
Defying his ongoing domestic drought, Colombian striker Luis Muriel fired La Dea into the lead last week with a clinical 17th-minute strike, but Leipzig fought back in spirited fashion; overcoming Andre Silva’s penalty miss to eventually force an equaliser when Davide Zappacosta turned the ball into his own net under pressure from Willi Orban.
That commendable result continues the stark contrast between the Nerazzurri’s fortunes in Europe and in Serie A, as they have won just three of their last 14 outings in the Italian top flight following another defeat at the weekend.
Previously perched on the shoulders of the leaders, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side now face a scrap to secure a place in continental competition next season through a top six finish; they occupy eighth place in the standings, having followed a 3-1 home defeat to Napoli with Sunday’s 2-1 reverse at Sassuolo.
Now four points adrift of sixth-placed Lazio, though still with a game in hand, Atalanta may even feel their best chance of booking a return ticket is by winning the Europa League itself, and their form in the competition since dropping down from the Champions League suggests they have every right to dream.
Four straight wins followed by last Thursday’s draw in Saxony has seen the Bergamaschi continue to impress on the European stage this year; putting their domestic woes to one side in pursuit of a first continental crown.
Although Gasperini’s side have won only three of their last nine European fixtures in Bergamo, their recent victory over Leverkusen also preserved the club’s unbeaten home record in both the Europa League and UEFA Cup.
They are now just three games away from Seville, where the final will be held in May, but their last success in a European quarter-final tie was back in the 1987-88 European Cup Winners’ Cup, when they ultimately went on to be eliminated by eventual winners Mechelen in the final four.
RB Leipzig’s Konrad Laimer celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates on April 2, 2022© Reuters
Like Atalanta, Leipzig have enjoyed many memorable nights in Europe’s premier competition over recent years, but in contrast to their Italian counterparts, their domestic form has helped pull them closer to Champions League qualification via a top four finish.
On Sunday, Domenico Tedesco saw his side follow a clinical 4-1 win over Borussia Dortmund a week previously with another three-goal victory – turning over Hoffenheim 3-0, with the opening goal coming from one of the Bundesliga’s hottest properties, Christopher Nkunku.
The French forward has netted 17 goals in 27 league starts following his latest strike, and a total of eight from nine in European fixtures this term will surely have Atalanta’s brittle defence on high alert ahead of Thursday’s return with the Serie A side.
Since finishing third in Champions League Group A last autumn, behind heavyweight contenders Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, much has changed at Leipzig in recent months.
Following Jesse Marsch’s departure, Italy-born Tedesco took the hotseat towards the tail end of that ultimately unsuccessful campaign, and Die Roten Bullen have been on an upward trajectory: recording 12 wins so far in 2022, and losing only to perennial champions Bayern, they are currently unbeaten in 12 matches.
Not only have they progressed up the Bundesliga standings to occupy fourth spot – with a three-point buffer to fifth-placed Freiburg, plus a vastly superior goal difference – the Saxony side also overcame Real Sociedad in the Europa League playoffs before receiving a bye against disqualified Spartak Moscow in the last 16.
Leipzig’s second participation in the knockout phase now continues, and in Bergamo they will hope to fare better than a 5-2 away defeat in their one previous quarter-final appearance – to Marseille in 2018.
Champions League semi-finalists two years later, the once-modest club now possess the pedigree which will make them many people’s favourites to meet either Braga or Rangers in the semi-final.