Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus were on target as Manchester City put one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals with an assured 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach

Pep Guardiola's side dominated the vast majority of this last-16 first leg and the City manager might have been frustrated by the failure to turn that into a more commanding lead until Jesus prodded in after 65 minutes.

Silva and Joao Cancelo created that goal after the Portugal duo had also combined for the 29th-minute opener, with the full-back's dipping delivery from the left for his diminutive compatriot to head home a truly sublime moment.

It brings a familiar hurdle into sight for the Premier League leaders, who have fallen at the quarter-final stage in each of the past three seasons.

Gladbach soon found themselves hemmed in by City's slick passing and astute pressing, with last-ditch challenges needed to thwart Jesus and Raheem Sterling.

Guardiola's men were content to bide their time and the opener arrived just before the half hour, with Silva nodding in Cancelo's sumptuous cross from deep at the back post.

Ramy Bensebaini sloppily gave the ball to Jesus in the 53rd minute but he hesitated and let Nico Elvedi get back to make a goal-saving challenge.

A rare moment of encouragement arrived for Gladbach as the hour approached, with Denis Zakaria powering past Rodri but overhitting a pass into the City box that Ederson swept up easily.

The Brazil goalkeeper was scampering in the 63rd minute when Alassane Plea's audacious flick bounced just beyond the far post.

Those minor scares roused City and Jesus showed sharp poaching instincts when Silva again played the unlikely role of back-post target man to tee him up.

When Phil Foden thrashed over from Ilkay Gundogan's 78th-minute knockdown, it was no surprise that Cancelo's chipped ball into the box crafted the opening.

A careless pass in stoppage time from Rodri gave Gladbach substitute Hannes Wolf a chance to reduce the deficit but Ederson prevailed in their one-on-one.
 

What does it mean? Savvy City look primed to push for glory

As Gladbach failed to register a single touch inside their opponents' box during the first half at Budapest's Puskas Arena, it was impossible to imagine this City getting involved in the sort of Champions League firefights that have proved their downfall – ties finishing 6-6 and 4-4 on aggregate against Monaco and Tottenham, only to depart on away goals, springing instantly to mind.

Such total control means Guardiola's team are unlikely to quicken the pulse as they did on those occasions but it makes the one major honour to have eluded the Catalan in Manchester a far more likely prospect.

What's next

City host in-form West Ham in the Premier League on Saturday, when Gladbach travel to title-chasing RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.

Lionel Messi was not among the veteran Barcelona stars Ronald Koeman called on to step up prior to Wednesday's win against Elche, the coach insists.

Barca headed into the match at Camp Nou having endured consecutive disappointing results in their previous two games, losing 4-1 at home to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League and then conceding a late equaliser to Cadiz in a 1-1 draw.

While Koeman has come to rely heavily on teenagers Pedri and Francisco Trincao this season, it was the more experienced players he demanded more from in his pre-match news conference on Tuesday.

That would presumably include Messi, the team's 33-year-old captain, but Koeman explained after overseeing a 3-0 victory that he had not been referring to his talisman.

Messi moved up a gear anyway, scoring with two of his three shots, creating a further chance and playing a role in the build-up to Jordi Alba's clinching goal.

The Barca number 10 certainly could not be questioned after increasing his 2021 tally to 13 goals in all competitions, the most of any player in Europe's 'top five' leagues.

"When I talk about veterans, I don't mean him," Koeman said. "Leo continues to score many goals.

"Others have to make a difference, not Messi. He continues to score, as he has shown today."

Messi was not immediately joined in lifting Barca's level as Trincao attempted the hosts' only two shots in the first half, their lowest tally in the opening 45 minutes of a home game this season.

Koeman had no issue then with Messi making his frustration clear during a tetchy first period.

"Everyone has seen that we lacked intensity and rhythm of the ball, especially," the coach explained. "It is good that Messi, as captain, asks for intensity."

Seven attempts followed after the interval, with all three of those on target hitting the net, while Koeman ended an eight-match run without a clean sheet.

"It was good," Koeman said. "The lack of rhythm was not due to a lack of attitude.

"Sometimes the opposition make things not go the way you want. We are human. The team has shown personality and desire."

Still third but now within five points of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid, Koeman was hopeful the mood in the Blaugrana camp would improve with the much-needed victory.

"Surely, having won today, tomorrow will be different," he said. "It is normal [to be upset] if you drop two points against Cadiz when it was time to cut back those at the top.

"You have to close this bad feeling with good games and good results."

Jose Mourinho is delighted by Dele Alli's return to form after he lit up Tottenham's Europa League win over Wolfsberger with an outstanding overhead kick.

Boasting a 4-1 lead from the away first leg, Spurs were dominant again in the return fixture, a 4-0 success.

Not since 2011-12, when coach of Real Madrid against APOEL, had Mourinho had a team score eight times over the course of a European knockout tie, and Alli was the star of the show.

Wednesday's game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium saw Alli make only his eighth start of the season - only one of which has come in the Premier League, in the opening-day defeat to Everton - but he made the most of his opportunity.

As well as executing a marvellous acrobatic volley - his first non-penalty goal of the campaign - at the end of a move he started, the England international provided two assists, doubling his seasonal tally.

This was the first time ever in a European match Alli had both a goal and an assist and the first time in any Tottenham fixture since December 2018.

These contributions and an impressive all-round display, including two shots, three key passes and 66 touches, suggest Alli is rediscovering his best form under Mourinho.

Since initially impressing when the Portuguese was appointed in 2019, Alli has fallen badly out of favour and was linked with a loan exit in January.

But Mourinho told BT Sport: "He had a difficult period. He had an injury, and at the same time he had an injury, it was the same period of talk, talk, talk about staying, leaving, leaving, staying.

"The market closed, the injury is gone, he started working with lots of motivation, and it's coming. That's what we need."

In his post-match news conference, the Spurs coach added: "The goal I don't need to speak [about] because everyone watched it and I believe around the world, on all these sports TV [channels], people are going to watch it.

"I don't need to talk about it. For me, the globality of the performance is what matters. He played very well. In every aspect of the game, he played very well.

"Of course he's not fresh, of course we can feel his performance, like in the first leg, from minute 55, 60 is going to go down - which is normal in the circumstances; injured, not training for a long time, come in for a couple of weeks.

"But in this moment where we are going to play every three days, 10 matches in March, to have Dele back at this level is amazing."

Substitute Gareth Bale was the beneficiary of one of Alli's assists, sweeping in a stunning third goal for his second of the tie.

Mourinho insists Tottenham's schedule means he does not need to have a first XI, but he acknowledged it would be hard to continue to leave Alli and Bale out of his league line-up.

"These are the headaches that I love," Mourinho said.

"The headaches I don't like are the headaches of selection [when] lots of people are not performing, lots of doubts, negative reasons. These are wonderful problems."

It was not just a night for Spurs' big names, though, as Dane Scarlett replaced Alli nine minutes from time and immediately teed up the fourth goal for Carlos Vinicius, also the scorer of the second.

Scarlett became the first 16-year-old to record a Europa League assist since Kylian Mbappe against Tottenham in December 2015.

Mourinho described the teenager as "a diamond" to BT Sport and added later: "He has immense talent, very good physical development. He's very good, he's going to be very good.

"I hope that nothing is going to destroy that potential. He must have his feet on the ground and his head on his shoulders because he has fantastic talent."

Barcelona narrowed the gap to LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid to five points as Lionel Messi's second-half double helped them to a 3-0 win over Elche.

Ronald Koeman's men had missed a chance to take advantage of Atletico's slip-up against Levante at the weekend when they were held at home by struggling Cadiz.

They were not at their best on Wednesday in a clash with another relegation-threatened side in Elche, but Messi's delightful double and a stylish Jordi Alba effort secured a crucial win.

Barca remain third in the table having played a game more than Atletico, whose lead over second-placed Real Madrid is just three points.

Francisco Trincao forced Edgar Badia into a close-range save in the second minute and, after Lucas Boye had spurned a gilt-edged chance at the other end, the Portugal international was denied a stunning goal by the Elche goalkeeper.

Trincao jinked past two Elche defenders after latching on to a pass from Messi, only to see Badia produce a fine diving save with his left hand.

Badia was required again to keep out Frenkie de Jong's header from a floated Messi free-kick, the frustration clear among Koeman and his players as parity was preserved.

That parity lasted just three minutes into the second half, Messi's shot squirming into the net despite Badia getting a hand to it following a superb flicked return pass from Martin Braithwaite.

Messi's second was similarly aesthetically pleasing, De Jong finding him at the end of the slaloming run before the Argentine delicately dinked the ball over Badia.

And the game was put beyond any doubt in the 73rd minute when Braithwaite nodded Messi's excellent cross-field ball into the path of Alba to dispatch with an acrobatic effort.

The scoreline could have been made more emphatic late on, but substitute Antoine Griezmann cracked the crossbar from Sergino Dest's low cross.

A spectacular goal from Dele Alli helped Tottenham to a 4-0 win over Wolfsberger on Thursday that secured their place in the last 16 of the Europa League.

Alli scored a stunning bicycle kick in the first half before setting up Carlos Vinicius and substitute Gareth Bale in the second as Jose Mourinho's side eased to an 8-1 aggregate victory.

Spurs' third win in nine games in all competitions, capped by a second from Vinicius, was a routine but welcome one, particularly for Mourinho, who was able to rest stars including Harry Kane and Son Heung-min as he looks to put together a string of results and ease some of the speculation over his future.

Spurs have made something of a habit of starting well this season – in fact, no Premier League team can match their tally of 11 goals in the first 10 minutes of matches in all competitions – but they have rarely broken the deadlock with such a flourish.

Alli played the ball out wide to Matt Doherty, brought down his cross and sent a sublime overhead kick out of the reach of goalkeeper Manuel Kuttin and into the left-hand corner.

Vinicius should have made it 2-0 before the break after rounding Kuttin, but the covering Gustav Henriksson did superbly to clear the striker's effort off the line.

He made no mistake early in the second half, though nodding in Alli's deep cross shortly after Eric Dier had been fortunate to escape punishment for taking out Cheikhou Dieng when the forward was through on Joe Hart's goal.

Spurs got their 100th Europa League goal 17 minutes from time, Bale sweeping an emphatic finish high into the net from Alli's pass after Harry Winks had pressed Wolfsberger into giving the ball away in their own half.

Mourinho handed debuts to Marcel Lavinier and Nile John, while 16-year-old Dane Scarlett was given more first-team experience, the latter setting up Vinicius to blast home his second and Spurs' fourth with seven minutes left.

 

What does it mean? Real work starts now for Mourinho

Defeat at this stage of the competition would have piled further pressure onto Mourinho, although their progress looked almost certain after that first-leg win.

As soon as Alli's magical opening goal effectively killed off any lingering Wolfsberger hopes, Spurs' focus will naturally have drifted towards a key few weeks in their season.

With games against Burnley, Fulham and Crystal Palace up next, this is the chance for Mourinho's men to build some momentum before the north London derby on March 14.

Alli emulates Giroud to give Mourinho food for thought

Not willing to be outdone by a London rival, Alli followed Olivier Giroud's overhead kick for Chelsea against Atletico Madrid with a quite superb version of his own to open the scoring.

It was his first goal since December and the only time he has scored in a game he started for the club since last March. Given he then assisted the next two goals, perhaps it could be a step on the road to redemption in the eyes of the man in charge.

Spurs cruise despite flat Dier

This was a game played mostly at a pedestrian pace, but Dier had one or two uneasy moments at the heart of the defence.

He was lucky not even to concede a foul for bringing down Dieng at 1-0 and lost Dejan Joveljic twice thereafter to give Wolfsberger some half-chances.

What's next?

Spurs host Burnley in the Premier League on Sunday, when Wolfsberger are also back in league action at home to Altach.

India ended the opening day of the third Test against England firmly on top despite losing Virat Kohli in the final over, closing on 99-3 having bowled out their opponents for 112.

The day-night contest at the newly named Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad was viewed in the build-up as a chance for the seam bowlers to take centre stage, with the four-match series between the teams delicately poised at 1-1.

However, it was India's spinners who once again dominated proceedings, Axar Patel claiming career-best figures of 6-38 to continue his outstanding start in Test cricket. Ravichandran Ashwin - one of the star performers for India as they won the second Test in Chennai - offered superb support, taking 3-26. 

Johnny Bairstow was the first of several players to be undone by deliveries that failed to turn at all, though, as his return to the team saw him trapped lbw for a duck, leaving the tourists at 27-2 after opting to bat first. 

Zak Crawley (53) countered impressively, playing some glorious shots off the front foot in particular as he and Joe Root added 47, only for England to then suffer a stunning collapse, their final eight wickets going down for just 38 runs.

Ashwin had Root lbw for 17 – despite the England captain attempting to get a reprieve through a review – before Crawley's fluent half-century came to an end when he fell in similar fashion to Axar. 

Ollie Pope (1) and Ben Stokes (6) both perished with the score stuck on 81, England's batsmen left bamboozled once more on a turning surface to leave a long tail exposed. 

Axar claimed three of the final four wickets to go down, wrapping up the innings when Ben Foakes was bowled for 12. England had lasted just 48.2 overs, posting their lowest first-innings score in India. 

Following a superb century in the previous match, the in-form Rohit Sharma led India's reply with an unbeaten 57 that included nine fours.

Fellow opener Shubman Gill found it tougher going as he made only 11, while Cheteshwar Pujara departed for a four-ball duck to Jack Leach. The left-arm spinner also struck late to give his team renewed hope, Kohli chopping on for 27, but the hosts undoubtedly were the happier team at stumps.

Super start continues for Axar 

Axar is the first Indian spinner to take a five-wicket haul in a day-night Test, while only the sixth slow bowler to do so in such fixtures with the pink ball. 

Having missed the series opener through injury - a game England won convincingly - he has now taken 13 wickets in the series at an average of 10.61, stunning numbers for a player who has had to wait patiently for his chance in the format. 

Zak back, but England topple quickly 

With Crawley and Root together, England appeared to have overcome two early setbacks to reach 74-2 just prior to the first break in proceedings on Wednesday. The former justified the decision to pick him over Rory Burns, hitting 10 fours to at times silence the 40,000-strong crowd present. 

Yet the right-hander was not alone in falling into the trap of playing for spin that was simply not there, hit on the front pad by a delivery from Axar that instead of turning went straight on.

 

Diogo Jota is closing in on a return to action for Liverpool, while fellow long-term injury victim Virgil van Dijk is also stepping up his rehabilitation. 

Jota has not featured since suffering a knee injury in December. 

It curtailed a superb start to life at Anfield from the Portugal international, who racked up nine goals in 17 appearances after joining from Wolves last September. 

Jota completed a full session with Jurgen Klopp's first-team squad at the AXA Training Centre on Wednesday. 

Van Dijk's absence stretches back further after he suffered knee ligament damage due to a challenge from Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford during last October's Merseyside derby at Goodison Park. 

Lengthy and ongoing absences for Joe Gomez and Joel Matip have made centre-back a problem position for Klopp this term, and Jordan Henderson is waiting to find out the extent of an adductor injury having filled in manfully at the heart of defence. 

Unlike Jota, Van Dijk's return is not imminent, but he took part in an individual outdoor session away from his team-mates and appeared to be in good spirits. 

Liverpool won four and drew three of eight matches with Van Dijk in the side this season, including a remarkable 7-2 loss at Aston Villa. 

That 50 per cent win ratio has not been maintained in his absence, however, with 14 wins, seven draws and eight losses amounting to 48.3 per cent. 

Such form has put paid to hopes of a successful Premier League title defence but Klopp's men remain in contention in Europe after an impressive 2-0 last 16 first-leg win over RB Leipzig. 

Jota's return could be key to their hopes of reaching a third final in four seasons in the Champions League. 

He netted a hat-trick in the 5-0 group-stage thrashing of Atalanta and overall Liverpool won 58.8 per cent of games with Jota involved (W10 D5 L2). 

That falls to 40 per cent (W8 D5 L7) in the months since his injury, while the Reds' goals-per-game average is down from 2.2 to 1.7 without the 24-year-old, even though they average almost two more shots per game (15.9) set against when Jota does feature (14.1). 

While Sunday's trip to Sheffield United may come too soon for Jota, he could potentially feature in the home clash with top-four rivals Chelsea next Thursday.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has encouraged Marcus Rashford to follow the example of Cristiano Ronaldo in order to make the most of his Manchester United career. 

February 25 marks five years since the forward's memorable debut for the Red Devils, when he scored twice in a 5-1 Europa League defeat of Midtjylland at Old Trafford. 

Having been drafted hastily into Louis van Gaal's first-team squad due to injuries and then thrust into the starting line-up when Anthony Martial was hurt in the warm-up, Rashford, then 18, struck twice in 12 minutes to help his side progress. 

Rashford has since developed into a key part of United and England's plans, with 85 goals and 38 assists in 253 games in all competitions at club level, plus 11 goals in 40 appearances for the national team. 

His strike in the 3-1 win over Newcastle United last Sunday drew him level with David Beckham for United goals, just 33 behind Ronaldo. 

Manager Solskjaer hopes Rashford takes inspiration from the five-time Ballon d'Or winner, who leads the goalscoring charts in Serie A this season after turning 36 three weeks ago. 

Speaking ahead of Thursday's Europa League last-32 second leg against Real Sociedad, Solskjaer said: "He's had an incredible impact on and off the pitch. He's matured, grown into a real proper young man.

"He knows what it takes to be a Manchester United player on and off the pitch, he's taken responsibility on it and off it. I do remember [his debut]: a young little lad coming on, two nice goals, celebration with his team-mates in the stand and I think he's living proof of what we want to do at the club. 

"When you sign for Man United, whether you're five, six, 10, 14, you have a chance to make dreams come true and long may it continue, he's got 10-15 years left in him. 

"You have to be meticulous to last for a long career. We've had the best possible example of that in world football with Cristiano. The way he has looked after himself, the way he came into the club and we all took notice the way he developed throughout his career and the way he looked after himself is major. 

"I'm sure Marcus as well is looking after himself. That's the only way to be at the top: you can't get distracted and if you play until you're 35 you can do whatever you want after that." 

Rashford scored in United's commanding first-leg victory in Turin, a result that puts them in a strong position to progress to the last 16. 

With Edinson Cavani, Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and Donny van de Beek sidelined and a Premier League game at Chelsea to come on Sunday, Solskjaer could well hand opportunities to youngsters such as Shola Shoretire and Amad Diallo, although Hannibal Mejbri will miss out through injury.

"Amad and Shola will be involved, they're in the squad and I'm not going to tell you if they're starting or not," he said.

"I believe in the youth, I believe if young players, if they get a chance, they can really develop, improve, impress, even surprise you and that's just part of this club and it's part of me.

"I've always loved working with young players and hungry players with a good attitude. If you've got a good attitude, you've got a good chance; if you don't, then there's less of a chance."

Mikel Arteta has challenged Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to do his talking on the pitch following criticism of the Arsenal forward's performance against Manchester City.  

Aubameyang had just 19 touches and attempted 11 passes in the 1-0 defeat to Pep Guardiola's Premier League leaders at Emirates Stadium, a result that leaves the Gunners languishing in 10th place in the table.  

Jamie Redknapp said in his post-match analysis on Sky Sports that the former Borussia Dortmund player was "past his best" and had "lost his superpower".  

"I saw him run past people when he first came to the Premier League. I saw him run past people at Dortmund. Now I'm seeing a player who looks like he's going to get bullied," Redknapp said of the 31-year-old. 

Aubameyang had scored a hat-trick in his previous league outing, a 4-2 victory over Leeds United, taking his tally in the competition to eight for the season – he managed 22 in his previous two campaigns with Arsenal.  

Arteta did not see Redknapp's comments but is aware of them, leading to him offering support for his under-fire captain ahead of the second leg of the Europa League tie against Benfica.  

"I'm here to support every single player and that is what I try to do all the time,” the Arsenal boss said.

"I try to give them the best possible advice and when they have a difficult moment, stay right behind them and that's what we try to do always." 

He added: "I think the best way to talk is always on the pitch.   

"Seven days before when he scored the hat-trick and he could have scored four or five against Leeds, he was again the main man.   

"He could have scored a hat-trick against Benfica easily with his qualities and it would have been different. At the end [of the day] it's about putting the ball in the back of the net for him and that's how he gets joy."

Arsenal go into the return fixture with the last-32 tie delicately poised at 1-1, Bukayo Saka's second-half goal securing a draw against their Portuguese opponents in Rome last week.

The teenager has been one of few positives for the Gunners in an otherwise difficult campaign, though Arteta is confident the England international can still get even better.

"His form in recent months shows that he's a very important player for us," the Arsenal boss said.

"I think he's getting better and better, his performance levels have been really consistent, so that makes him for sure one of the most important players in recent months.

"He's dealing with things at his age in a very unusual way, but that's why he's showing what he's showing, because his maturity is above his age and so is his intelligence as well."

Rudy Gestede struck a goal in each half as Melbourne Victory beat Wellington Phoenix 2-0 in a battle of the A-League's bottom two. 

Victory climbed off the foot of the table, leapfrogging their visitors courtesy of Gestede's double at AAMI Park. 

Jake Brimmer provided the ammunition for both as the hosts ended a three-game losing streak in a fixture that saw seven yellow cards. 

Grant Brebner's side took the lead deep into first-half stoppage time when former Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa forward Gestede met Brimmer's right-wing corner with a firm header. 

The same combination led to the hosts' second, Brimmer sending over a corner which Gestede nodded in after 49 minutes. 

Despite 18 attempts, Wellington could only hit the target once as their run without a win at this stadium was extended to 11 games.

 

 

 

Ash Barty crashed out of the Adelaide International at her first hurdle after going down in straight sets to Danielle Collins.

It took only 65 minutes for American Collins to defeat the defending champion and world number one in a 6-3 6-4 triumph.

Barty, who had a bye in the first round, did have opportunities, breaking in the first game of the match and building a 4-1 lead in the second set.

But on both occasions Collins stormed back, claiming her first win in four attempts against home favourite Barty, who had beaten her in the semi-finals of last year's tournament.

Coco Gauff continued her fine run to reach a first WTA quarter-final since August 2020 with an impressive comeback win over sixth seed Petra Martic.

The American triumphed 5-7 6-3 6-4 in two hours and 12 minutes to book a clash with compatriot Shelby Rogers at the WTA 500 event.

Gauff did not relinquish serve once after losing the first set and did not even offer up a break-point chance in the decider, which she sealed with a pivotal early break secured with a passing winner.

"I go into every tournament thinking that I can win," said the 16-year-old.

"Obviously that's impossible, to have a perfect record, but I go into every tournament believing that I can win. 

"I try not to think far ahead in the match, at least I just try to focus on my next match, just because you have to get through that before you can get to the finals, and just take it one match at a time."

Second seed Belinda Bencic will face Storm Sanders in the quarter-finals after a 6-1 6-3 win over Misaki Doi.

In a match where she was not quite as dominant as the scoreline suggests, Bencic had to fend off 12 break points but was successful in saving 10 of them.

Number four seed Elise Mertens withdrew before her match with a shoulder injury, so Anastasija Sevastova beat lucky loser Christina McHale to set up a last-eight tie with Jil Teichmann.

Atalanta's players crumpled to the turf dejected, crestfallen and beaten.

Gian Piero Gasperini's side were a had been half a minute, plus stoppage time, away from a place in the Champions League semi-finals before late goals by Marquinhos and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting saw Paris Saint-Germain break their hearts in Lisbon.

It concluded a season of unlikely triumph surrounded by crushing tragedy for the club and their city of Bergamo.

As they prepare to host Real Madrid on Wednesday, memories of their previous Champions League home game remain vivid, yet feel like they are from another time altogether.

'Game zero'

On February 19 last year, around 40,000 Atalanta fans – a shade under a third of Bergamo's population – packed themselves into coaches and train carriages and headed to Milan.

San Siro was hosting La Dea's European home games as the Gewis Stadium underwent renovation. Two-time finalists Valencia were opponents who soon discovered such pedigree counted for nothing.

Gasperini's men scythed through Los Che irresistibly, chalking up a riotous 4-1 win amid scenes of delirium in the stands.

On February 20, Bergamo's mayor Giorgio Gori learnt of the first reported case of COVID-19 in a nearby town. As the early weeks of the pandemic unfolded, his city was ravaged. By the beginning of April there had been 2,245 declared deaths, with local newspaper Eco di Bergamo estimating the figure to be closer to 4,500 over the course of March.

Other factors, such as an outbreak in a local hospital, played a part in Bergamo's devastating collective tale, but Atalanta's thrashing of Valencia being alternatively described as "game zero" and a "biological bomb" cast a shadow over one of the finest night's in the club's history.

Yet, when games returned in empty stadiums, Atalanta motored on with an outside bid for the Scudetto. They led twice against eventual champions Juventus before two Cristiano Ronaldo penalties pegged them back to a 2-2 draw.

From that point, they won only three of the final six games of a relentless Serie A schedule, with PSG then benefitting from being taken deep by a team running on empty.

The plan was to keep the side together and challenge again this time around – something that has been accomplished despite one notable exception.

No Papu, no party?

If one player embodied both the swashbuckling brilliance of Gasperini's Atalanta and the close bond between club and city that only became stronger during the pandemic, it was Papu Gomez.

Signed to a squad battling relegation in 2014, the Argentinian playmaker transformed the club in tandem with Gasperini as their captain and creative inspiration.

Last season, as they scaled new heights, he created an astonishing 120 chances across all competitions. Among players from Europe's top five leagues, that placed Gomez joint fifth and a place ahead of compatriot Lionel Messi (116).

In an interview with El Pais, the 33-year-old revealed an unusual secret to his craft. He takes his positional cue on the field from the referee because the official is always in space.

Such maverick, intuitive quirks made Gomez the often unplayable jewel at the centre of Gasperini's sparkling, shifting attack. Both men are heroes to the extent they have been granted the freedom of Bergamo.

Gomez was majestic in the 2-0 group-stage win at Liverpool but only played four more times for Atalanta as the love story came to an abrupt end.

During a 1-1 draw against Midtjylland – Atalanta enter the Madrid game still seeking a first Champions League win at their own ground – Gomez and Gasperini became engaged in a tactical dispute that resulted in the skipper being substituted at half-time.

From that point he was used only when absolutely necessary against the very best, completing 90 minutes as La Dea sealed qualification at Ajax's expense with a 1-0 win in Amsterdam, before coming off the bench to help claim a 1-1 draw at Juventus.

In the transfer window, he was sold to Sevilla. Champions League money and a windfall in the region of €85million from the sales of Dejan Kulusevski and Amad Diallo mean Atalanta do not have to seek buyers. Gomez and Gasperini's relationship was one simply deemed beyond salvaging.

If, at that moment, it felt fair to predict the end of the fairy story of a club punching hugely above its weight to gate crash Europe's elite, two prolific strikers had other ideas.

Colombian double shot

Following a senior international breakthrough with Italy this season, Matteo Pessina has generally taken Gomez's place in Gasperini's 3-4-1-2, although 24 chances created in as many appearances shows a significant shortfall on his former team-mate's astonishing numbers.

That is not to say Pessina, with his astutely timed runs to combined with the forwards, does not contribute strongly, but Atalanta have had to find other ways through.

In 16 games since Gomez last featured in the Juve draw, they have lost once, beating Roma 4-1, Sassuolo 5-1, Milan 3-0 and, last weekend, Napoli 4-2. They also saw off Gennaro Gattuso's side to reach the Coppa Italia final.

The common theme in those heavy wins was Colombia strikers Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel getting on the scoresheet.

Despite starting just eight Serie A matches this season, Muriel has 14 top-flight goals. He is a super-sub beyond superlatives.

His minutes-per-goal ratio of 73.1 is the best for players in Europe's top leagues across all competitions. His 17th of the campaign against Napoli last time out meant he began this week ahead of Erling Haaland (78.9) and Robert Lewandowski (81.9).

Gasperini has started his strike duo together more frequently over recent weeks, perhaps anticipating more consistent returns than those promised by the exquisite but mercurial Josip Illicic, but their starter-substitute double act has often proved impossible for defences to combat.

Zapata is not enjoying his best season in front of goal. Like Lewandowski, he has missed 22 of what Opta terms "big chances" but has only netted on nine such occasions to the Poland superstar's 23.

Nevertheless, he has still weighed in with 13 goals overall and always serves the purpose of extending centre-backs to their physical and technical limits before a forebodingly fresh Muriel comes on to make hay.

His electrifying pace is a nightmare for tiring defences, as evidenced by seven goals from his own carries. Only Tottenham's Son Heung-min (nine) boasts more in the big five leagues, while Muriel has laid on three further goals in similar fashion.

Going to the dentist

Muriel and Zapata are simultaneously part of and beneficiaries of a tireless team effort that further explains Atalanta's success.

After his side's 1-1 draw at San Siro in last season's Champions League, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said playing Gasperini's team was "like going to the dentist".

It was a reference to the pressing game that can feel like an invasive root canal procedure for opponents.

In Europe's top five leagues, only Bayern Munich (278) had made more high turnovers than Atalanta's 259, with La Dea turning those into 39 shots and five goals (fourth and joint fifth best, respectively).

All teams have had to make some allowance for the fatigue of a compressed season and Atalanta's approach is not quite as ravenous as it was. They allow opponents an average of 10.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA), down from 9.3 last season – which was the best in Italy and third in Europe.

Even so, for high turnovers, high turnovers ending in shots and pressed sequences they lead the way in Serie A. There promises to be little respite for an injury-hit Madrid.

They also have the highest defensive line in Italy, with Opta data showing Atalanta's attacks start on average 45 metres from their own goal – a figure in line with Bayern, Liverpool and City.

This does mean a defence susceptible to collapse on occasions. This season's wins over Napoli and Liverpool avenged 4-1 and 5-0 losses, while a 3-3 draw from 3-0 up against Torino earlier this month put any lingering Scudetto hopes in perspective.

Still, the role of Atalanta's midfield driving force Remo Freuler should not be underestimated when it comes to filling in those shaky foundations.

The Switzerland international was absent for the Napoli and Torino setbacks. Indeed, Atalanta's record without Freuler on the field reads drawn two and lost two in 2020-21, set against a 62 per cent win rate when he features.

Freuler, Zapata and Muriel are all set to be key against Madrid, who are trying to avoid a third consecutive last-16 exit.

So, what are the chances of an upset?

"With all the respect in the world, Atalanta are a wonderful team playing very offensive football," former Madrid captain Fernando Hierro told AS.

"But in our time, the Italian clubs we met were of a different calibre. That's why Madrid must now have faith in their abilities because Atalanta are not a team to be intimidated by."

Perhaps not. But after weathering life at the epicentre of Europe's coronavirus crisis, brushing off the bitterest of Champions League defeats and marching on despite unexpectedly losing their best player, it feels fair to wonder why on earth Atalanta would be intimidated by Real Madrid.

The Champions League's round-of-16 first legs conclude on Wednesday with the competition's most decorated club in action.

Real Madrid, who have been crowned champions of Europe 13 times, face an eye-catching Atalanta side in Italy.

With their LaLiga title hopes boosted by rivals Atletico Madrid's recent blip, Zinedine Zidane's men go into the match on a four-game winning streak.

That pales next to Manchester City's stunning 18-game winning run, with Pep Guardiola's charges facing a trip to Borussia Monchengladbach.

Using Opta data, we take a closer look at both matches.

Atalanta v Real Madrid: Another Italian job for Los Blancos?

Real Madrid head to Atalanta with fond memories of recent trips to Italy, having won each of their last five Champions League games in the country by an aggregate score of 12-1.

This will be the first meeting between the two teams and Madrid represent only the second Spanish side Atalanta have faced in European competition, having beaten Valencia 8-4 on aggregate in last season's round of 16.

Madrid are the most seasoned of campaigners in this competition, having now reached the knockout stages for a record 24th consecutive edition

Atalanta are at the opposite end of the scale, featuring for just the second time, though they are the first team since Sevilla (in 2007-08 and 2009-10) to reach the knockout stages in each of their first two tournament appearances.

Gian Piero Gasperini's men will need to shake off their sluggish form at the Stadio de Bergamo, with Atalanta the only side still in the competition yet to win a Champions League home game this season.

Madrid boss Zidane has an outstanding record to protect, having prevailed in 12 of his 13 Champions League knockout ties – the only exception coming against Guardiola's City in last season's round of 16.

Borussia Monchengladbach v Manchester City: We meet again...

Borussia Monchengladbach and Manchester City are familiar foes, with this set to be their seventh meeting.

For both clubs, that represents the most matches against a single opponent in European competition.

The head-to-head record weighs heavily in City's favour, with the Premier League club unbeaten in four Champions League fixtures, winning three.

Guardiola's side should also be feeling increasingly comfortable in the knockout stage, with this their eighth consecutive appearance. That is the best ongoing run for an English club.

Gladbach are in less well-known territory, having gone 43 years without competing in the concluding stages of Europe's elite competition, that last foray ending in a 4-2 loss against Liverpool in the semi-finals of the 1977-78 European Cup. 

The Germans have won only two of their nine home games in the Champions League (D4 L3), but they have scored in every one of those outings.

That record will come under threat against a City side who conceded just one goal in the group stage.

James Harden's triple-double fuelled the streaking Brooklyn Nets to a 127-118 win over the Sacramento Kings in the NBA.

Harden recorded his sixth triple-double since joining the Nets from the Houston Rockets in January, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists as Brooklyn extended their winning streak to seven games on Tuesday.

The former MVP is averaging 27.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 11.1 assists per game with a .500 field goal percentage during Brooklyn's seven-game winning run. Per Stats Perform, the last NBA player to reach all those numbers over a seven-game span was Magic Johnson in 1988.

Bruce Brown scored 13 of his career-high 29 points in the final quarter, while Nets team-mate Kyrie Irving put up 21 of his own at home to the slumping Kings – who have lost eight games in a row.

 

Jokic goes off in Denver, Giannis stars

Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic scored 41 points to inspire his team to a 111-106 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo helped the Milwaukee Bucks past the Minnesota Timberwolves 139-112 thanks to his 37 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and two steals.

The Golden State Warriors topped the New York Knicks 114-106 behind Stephen Curry's game-high 37 points on the road.

Kawhi Leonard (32 points) and Paul George (30 points) combined as the Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Washington Wizards 135-116.

 

Baptism of fire for debutant Finch

How big is the challenge facing new Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch? Look no further than the loss to the Bucks. Minnesota have lost five consecutive games and nine of their last 10 to own the NBA's worst record of 7-25. Former Raptors assistant Finch replaced Ryan Saunders on Monday.

Fred VanVleet was just four of 14 from the field for 12 points in the Toronto Raptors' 109-102 defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers. Joel Embiid had a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds for the 76ers, but he was only three-of-13 shooting from the field.

 

Doncic calls game

Luka Doncic delivered in a clutch moment for the Dallas Mavericks, who edged the Boston Celtics 110-107. Doncic nailed a three-pointer with 0.1 seconds remaining to break a tie against Boston. He posted 31 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

 

Tuesday's results

Cleveland Cavaliers 112-111 Atlanta Hawks
Detroit Pistons 105-93 Orlando Magic
Brooklyn Nets 127-118 Sacramento Kings
Golden State Warriors 114-106 New York Knicks
Philadelphia 76ers 109-102 Toronto Raptors
Dallas Mavericks 110-107 Boston Celtics
Milwaukee Bucks 139-112 Minnesota Timberwolves
Denver Nuggets 111-106 Portland Trail Blazers
Los Angeles Clippers 135-116 Washington Wizards

 

Lakers at Jazz

It is the hunted against the hunters on Wednesday. Defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers travel to the NBA-leading Utah Jazz midweek. A run of three consecutive losses has left the Lakers (22-10) third in the Western Conference, behind the Jazz (25-6) and neighbours the Clippers (23-10).

Bayern Munich head coach Hansi Flick said the Champions League holders took a giant step towards the quarter-finals following their 4-1 demolition of Lazio.

It was one-way traffic in Rome, where Bayern made light work of hosts Lazio in the opening leg of the last-16 tie on Tuesday.

Robert Lewandowski, Jamal Musiala and Leroy Sane were on target in the opening 45 minutes before Lazio's Francesco Acerbi turned the ball into his own net within two minutes of the second-half restart.

Joaquin Correa pulled a goal back for Lazio two minutes later, but Bundesliga champions Bayern are in complete control of the knockout clash.

Bayern are now unbeaten in their last 18 Champions League games (W17 D1) – the fourth-longest such streak in the competition's history and the longest since a run of 25 for Manchester United in May 2009.

"Everyone lived up to expectations," Flick said post-match. "We turned in a very good team performance.

"We wanted to put our opponents under pressure from the start, it worked out well. We often won the ball high up the field, created chances and made the most of them. We're very pleased today.

"We want to advance to the quarter-finals, and today we took a giant stride towards our goal. But there's still a second match to play."

Musiala – just the second 17-year-old to start a Champions League knockout fixture for Bayern – enjoyed a memorable outing in the Italian capital, where he doubled the lead after Lewandowski's opener.

At 17 years and 363 days, Musiala became the youngest Englishman to score in the Champions League.

He also became the second-youngest player to score in the knockout stages of the Champions League, after Bojan (17 years and 217 days) netted for Barcelona against Schalke in the quarter-finals in 2007-08.

"We are very happy that he produced a good performance just like the whole team. The goal shows what he's about. He is very good when he has the ball and can play well between the lines," Flick added.

"He has a good feeling for open space on the pitch. He did well, just like the other players. We are happy with his goal and satisfied with his performance."

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