Real Madrid’s date with their UEFA Champions League destiny has arrived. The competition’s most successful side travel to Bergamo to face Atalanta later this evening at 21:00, in the first leg of their round of 16 tie – and the eyes of the continent will no doubt be watching how the Spaniards get on.
Much like their visit to Real Valladolid at the weekend, Zinedine Zidane only has 12 first team players to call upon, the rest will be made up of the club’s second team from Real Madrid Castilla. But, despite the injuries, they come into this clash on the back of a decent run of results, although the performances may be a bit more worrying. Since their woeful 2-1 defeat to Levante on 30th January, Madrid have recovered well, winning four games on the bounce, and three of them, the latest three, without conceding a goal.
They’ve scored seven and conceded once in their previous four games, but the concerns over the performance level is where this tie is likely to be decided. Madrid simply don’t create enough chances anymore, they struggle in the final third, and especially struggled against Valladolid, where the only way they looked likely to score was through a Casemiro header from a set-piece. In fact he missed two free-headers before eventually scoring his third attempt, but it just portrays how badly Madrid struggle to break down well drilled and organised defensive units.
In contrast, Los Blancos come up against a team which have only lost once in their last 20 games in all competitions, a run which stretches back to 1st December 2020. In Serie A, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side sit in fifth place, just two points behind Juventus who are third, albeit having played a game more than the reigning champions. They’re the second highest scorers in the league so far, their 53 goals from 23 games are only bettered by league leaders Inter Milan who have scored 57. Form wise, they bang on it, with three wins and two draws from their previous five games in all competitions, and their most recent match was a 4-2 win over Napoli at the Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, where Real will be facing them today.
The key talking point
That game against Napoli was the perfect preparation for the hosts, but it was also ideal for Madrid to get a flavour of what to expect. A game in which Atalanta demonstrated how good they are off the ball in the final third, hunting in packs, and winning the ball back or forcing errors, that’s something Casemiro, Raphael Varane and Nacho Fernandez are going to have to be really wary of.
The Italians are simply incredible going forward. Gasperini has created one of the most fluid and entertaining units in Europe, and when they’re on it, they’re very difficult to stop. Madrid’s back-line and Casemiro are going to have to be near-perfect to keep them at bay, but they have so many different options to hurt you with. Whether it’s the wingers with their overlapping runs, or whether it’s the likes of Luis Muriel or Josip Iličić dropping into little pockets and causing havoc that way in the collective press, they simply hurt their opponents in several different ways.
In terms of how Madrid are going to hurt them, they tend to transition into a back five when defending, and that’s been Real’s kryptonite more often than not. With the absence of Karim Benzema, there is a case for Zidane to use an extra midfielder, almost as a ‘damage limitation’ exercise considering how poor the squad is with so many injuries, but also, to gain more control. Atalanta are a team that crave the ball, so they’ll hound Madrid, and if Zidane goes with Isco as well as his usual three midfielders, in a diamond, then that gives the Spanish side more control, at least on paper. It would mean Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio are up front in a two-man attack, but Isco would drift in the pocket behind them and look to open up what can be a difficult defence to crack. Napoli did have some joy in their 4-2 loss at the weekend, two similar angled crosses in over the top of the defence from the right hand side got them two goals, it’s a tactic Madrid often play with their right-back crossing to the back-post.
Ultimately, Madrid’s aim will be to leave Italy with a result which keeps them in the tie. They’ll believe they can turn things around if they get three to four more starters back in time for the return leg, which is three weeks after tonight’s first-leg, and they should recover some important players by then.
Atalanta’s only absentee through injury is likely to be their right-wing back Hans Hateboer, but they have an able deputy in Joakim Maehle who played 90 minutes against Napoli. There are suspension concerns though, as two of Gasperini’s main central defenders Cristian Romero and Berat Djimsiti are a booking away from missing the return leg at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, so it remains to be seen if they’ll be risked. Danger men Duvan Zapata, Muriel, Iličić, Robin Gosens and Matteo Pessina will all strike fear into Madrid’s players, because they’re proven match-winners on their day for La Dea.
In contrast, Madrid have been decimated with injuries, so it’s the ideal time for Atalanta to be hosting a team which is limping, in many ways. Zidane is without captain Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo, Alvaro Odriozola, Eder Militao, Federico Valverde, Rodrygo Goes, Eden Hazard and Benzema for this trip to Italy. And the concern in the camp is that Casemiro is one booking away from missing the return fixture, which would be calamitous for Los Merengues, as the Brazilian has no replacement in the squad.
The last time they met?
These two sides have never actually met, not even in a friendly or a pre-season tournament. But here’s an interesting fact for you, which could help settle Madridista nerves. Atalanta are the only remaining side in this year’s round of 16 yet to win a single home game – they drew twice and lost once in their group. If you want to learn even more about the high-flying Serie A side ahead of this clash, have a read of this piece from our columnist Muddassir Hussain, when he sat down with an Atalantini for a Q&A.