And so the never-ending 2019/20 season careens towards the Champions League quarter-finals, via a scattering of round of 16 second legs.
With ten teams still capable of lifting the trophy – actually, let’s say nine because Chelsea might as well not turn up at the Allianz Arena – the question is: who should you support?
If you support one of the nine teams in question then the answer is obvious, but it should be equally obvious for the millions of neutrals who will be tuning in too.
Atalanta are tremendous fun, perhaps the most fun team in Europe for the last two years.
The Nerazzurri finished as Serie A’s top scorers with 98 goals, 22 more than champions Juventus.
In fact, only Bayern Munich and Man City scored more goals in Europe’s top five leagues this season, the primary difference being the Italians also conceded their fair share.
Atalanta leaked 48 league goals in 2019/20, the same tally as Fiorentina who finished 10th.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s ambitious tactics mean Atalanta’s fixtures usually mean goals at both ends, just look at their Champions League round of 16 tie against Valencia that finished 8-4 on aggregate.
The 62-year-old demands regular overloads and encourages his players to pass progressively at all times.
Like Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle side of the mid-90s, there’s a sense that no matter how many concede, they believe they will always be able to score one more.
Their ultra attack-minded approach allows the perennially underrated Papu Gomez to express himself without limitations.
The Argentine playmaker scored seven goals and provided 16 assists in Serie A this season but to judge the 32-year-old through stats alone would be a crime.
Gomez is one of the most aesthetically satisfying footballers currently plying his trade and you should seek out any relevant highlights/montages if you are unaware of his work.
Similarly underrated is Josip Ilicic, the Slovenian forward who some were tipping for a Ballon d’or nomination before France Football decided to scrap the award for 2020.
One possible reason Ilicic is overlooked by some is that he isn’t a fashionable, marketable footballer in the mould of a Paulo Dybala or a Paul Pogba.
Standing comfortably over 6 feet tall at 32 years of age, it would be easy for lazy onlookers to misread his strengths.
To underestimate Ilicic’s technical ability is to render yourself a fool, his deftness of touch and penchant for flair make him an electric player at his best.
Then there’s Duvan Zapata, who has played the best football of his career in the blue and black stripes, Robin Gosens, Luis Muriel and Mario Pasalic — all of whom have contributed between 15-25 goal involvements each this season.
Much like Ajax in 2018/19, Atalanta have captured the hearts of neutrals with their spirited showings in Europe.
They managed to qualify for the knockout stages despite failing to win any of their first four games in Group C before snatching headlines with the goal-fest against Valencia.
The revised tournament structure may suit Atalanta.
Over two legs, PSG would have been heavy favourites to overcome the entertaining Italians but in a one-off game on neutral soil, Gasperini’s side are more likely to spring an upset.
The Parisians will be wary of their quarter-final opponents, having only played two competitive matches (both narrowly won domestic cup finals) since March after the powers that be called time on Ligue 1 because of Covid-19.
With their uniquely ambitious philosophy, Atalanta are well-equipped to capitalise on any rust that may be lurking Neymar and co’s joints.
Kylian Mbappe’s participation is in doubt after the startlet suffered an ankle injury against Saint-Etienne.
However, Atalanta may be without Ilicic after their four-goal hero of the round of 16 returned to Slovenia following distress in his personal life.
There are other good reasons to support Atalanta.
On the most basic level, they are underdogs whose resources are dwarfed by that of their opponents and the other teams left in the competition.
In the context of modern times, Bergamo was one of the Europe’s worst-affected cities by Covid-19.
At one point, over half the tests returned positive results and the area endured collective mourning for those who subsequently passed away.
Few cities have been as emotionally devastated by the virus and the return of the Champions League represents an opportunity to transition from grief into hope for the future.
This season is the first time Atalanta have ever played in Europe’s premier club competition and now, after an agonising delay, they find themselves one game away from the semi-finals.
Whatever happens, it’ll be worth watching.