Atalanta stun Shakhtar to reach Champions League last 16

(Reuters) - Atalanta completed an astounding turnaround in their Champions League fortunes with a 3-0 victory at Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday that sent the Italians through to the knockout stages despite having lost their first three Group C games.

Soccer Football - Champions League - Group C - Shakhtar Donetsk v Atalanta - Metalist Stadium, Kharkiv, Ukraine - December 11, 2019 Atalanta's Robin Gosens scores their third goal REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Timothy Castagne bundled home a finish midway through the second half before Dodo was sent off for the hosts, and goals inside the final 10 minutes from Mario Pasalic and Robin Gosens wrapped up the three points.

The victory lifted Atalanta from the bottom of Group C to second place on seven points, one ahead of Shakhtar, who finished third after Dinamo Zagreb (five points) lost 4-1 at home to group winners Manchester City (14) in the other fixture.

Bergamo-based Atalanta are the first team in the current competition format to qualify for the knockout stages after losing their first three group games. Newcastle United also achieved the feat in 2002-03 when there were two group stages.

“I couldn’t believe it up until the third goal,” Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini told Sky Italia.

“We’ve achieved a great result and we’re happy, also for Italian football as a whole.

“This victory is for Bergamo, from the players, to the directors and the fans. This is a victory for the whole city.”

Atalanta are making their first appearance in European football’s premier club competition thanks to a surprising third-place Serie A finish, which was achieved despite them having the 14th-highest wage budget in the league.

Their maiden campaign got off to a disastrous start as they conceded nine goals in heavy defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Manchester City, either side of a heartbreaking 2-1 home loss to Shakhtar, who scored a stoppage-time winner.

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But a draw at home to City and the subsequent win over Dinamo left them with a chance of progression, as long as they won in Kharkiv and Dinamo failed to beat Pep Guardiola’s side.

“It’s just incredible, there are no words for this unique sensation I am feeling right now,” said captain Alejandro Gomez.

“It will remain in the history of football and of this club. I think it will also stay long in the memory of everyone who was in the stadium tonight.

“All of us here at Atalanta came from humble roots. Nobody here can be called world-class or a superstar name, but we achieved this result through hard work and sacrifice.”

Gasperini’s side started at a frantic pace and had the better early chances, but Pasalic could only muster a weak finish from a tight angle when the visitors failed to take advantage of a loose pass from the home defence, before Luis Muriel pulled a volley wide.

Shakhtar were left frustrated after 15 minutes when Viktor Kovalenko smashed home a finish, only for the goal to be disallowed for offside in the build-up.

Then Junior Moraes’ point-blank header was denied by a fingertip save from Atalanta’s Pierluigi Gollini seven minutes before the break.

Atalanta were denied by the offside flag when Castagne bundled in Gomez’s cross on 66 minutes, but a lengthy check from the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) saw the decision overturned and left the Italians with one foot in the knockout stages.

Things went from bad to worse for the home side when Dodo was sent off in the 77th minute after catching Remo Freuler in the face with a flailing arm.

Pasalic then nudged in a low free kick with 10 minutes remaining, before Gosens made it three deep in stoppage time when he pounced on a slack defensive header to volley in from close range.

Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Ian Chadband