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Colombian aces Zapata, Muriel powering Atalanta before Liverpool showdown

Colombian international forwards Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel are two weapons Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini can count on against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the Champions League on Tuesday in Bergamo.

For Gasperini the match at home against the six-time Champions League winners is proof his side have earned their place among the best in Europe.

“We wanted to face teams of great prestige, extraordinary clubs for their history,” said Gasperini. 

“This is already an achievement. The game we’re going to play is really energising us.”

Atalanta’s first Champions League campaign last season started badly, losing their first three group matches, before picking up speed to make the ‘final eight’ in Portugal. 

This time, they have four points from two games and are second in Group D behind 2019 winners Liverpool, largely thanks to Zapata and Muriel’s goals.

A Zapata double pulled Atalanta back to hold Ajax 2-2 last week in Bergamo, his third goal after scoring along with Muriel in a 4-0 win over Danish club Midtjylland.

On the domestic front, 29-year-old Zapata has scored two goals, and Muriel, also 29, is on four after a brace in Saturday’s 2-1 victory at Crotone.

For the pair, both born in April 1991, it is a rivalry going back to their time on the Colombian U20 team.

Zapata’s arrival at Atalanta in 2018, initially on loan from Sampdoria, has coincided with the most successful period in the club’s history.

“What I’m experiencing at Atalanta is special,” said Zapata. 

“I’ve never had such a period in my career.”

After a slow start with just one goal in 13 league games, Zapata had his breakthrough season in 2018-2019, second top scorer in the league with 23 — two more than Cristiano Ronaldo.

Atalanta finished third to qualify for a first campaign of elite European football, with Zapata helping persuade Muriel to sign the following season from Sevilla.

“Duvan already told me a bit about Atalanta, all beautiful things,” said Muriel. 

“He’s a true friend. I’ve known him for many years, we were also teammates at the U-20 World Cup. In attack, we’ve linked up many times.”

Super sub

In his debut season, Muriel earned a reputation as a super-sub, scoring 18 Serie A goals despite only starting 10 matches.

Zapata, also scored 18 but in 28 games last season, having being sidelined for months with an injury picked up on international duty with Colombia.

Atalanta again finished third with 98 goals scored.

Both Colombians’ careers have been intertwined since starting playing in the city of Cali with Zapata at America de Cali and Muriel, Deportivo Cali.

After a stint in Argentina, Zapata arrived in Italy, playing backup to Gonzalo Higuain at Napoli before going on to Udinese and Sampdoria, two clubs Muriel also played for on his arrival in Europe.

Zapata missed out on the 2018 World Cup, with Muriel playing in Russia as Colombia failed to make the quarter-finals after a last-16 penalty shootout defeat to England.

But both have impressed recently for Colombia, each scoring, Muriel getting a double in a 3-0 World Cup qualifying win against Venezuela in October.

In the build-up to the Liverpool game, Gasperini rotated the forwards with Muriel starting and Zapata coming on after the break against Crotone.

The Bergamo side are one of the most attacking teams in Italy, with 23 goals in all competitions from nine different players, five from captain Papu Gomez.

Enough to cause headaches for Liverpool’s defenders.

“The only big regret is that the public won’t be there,” said Gasperini. 

“I could only imagine what Tuesday’s match could be against Liverpool in front of the crowd in Bergamo. Such an important Champions League match.

“There would have been so much excitement and expectation. It’s really cruel for us that this won’t be able to happen.”

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