Real Madrid’s European adventure could either come to an end, or move past the round of 16 stage for the first time since 2017-18, as they host Atalanta B.C. in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League tie. The game kicks off at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano at 21:00 CET.
Zinedine Zidane’s men will kick-off with a slender 1-0 lead, courtesy of Ferland Mendy’s late winner against the 10-men of Atalanta at the end of February. Their spirits will be high too, having secured another late win at the weekend, this time against Elche, Karim Benzema at the double. Madrid have struggled in recent times without Sergio Ramos in Europe, and notably, he was absent in their two most recent exits, against Ajax in 2018-19, and then versus Manchester City last season. The captain’s return will most certainly help get Madrid through, but they aren’t playing well, are struggling to create openings, and will be hoping the visitors come out on the front-foot, which usually helps Zidane’s side.
Since the first-leg defeat, Atalanta are polar opposites to Madrid. They recovered from that loss to Los Blancos by scoring seven in their next two games, beating Sampdoria 2-0 and then Crotone 5-1. A stumbling block then came in their way, and they failed to score in a 1-0 defeat to Serie A leaders Inter Milan. But on Friday, they were back, and put three past Spezia, beating them 3-1 at home. Gian Piero Gasperini’s side are certainly to be feared, and Madrid will have to be impeccable defensively, in possession, but also in chance conversion, because they likely won’t create too many opportunities.
The key talking point
The first-leg was an anomaly in many ways. Remo Freuler’s 17th minute sending-off completely changed the way Atalanta were going to play. In fact, before the sending off, the hosts were on-top, closing Madrid down, winning the second ball, and capitalising on the half-spaces. This time, Madrid might not be as lucky, and Gasperini’s side will no doubt be well rehearsed on how to hurt Real.
The Spaniards tend to fall asleep, that’s something they can’t do with the high pressure Atalanta are going to be applying. They’ll hound Madrid, so Federico Valverde is going to be so crucial in both; attacking and defensive transitions. In Casemiro’s absence, it’s likely Zidane goes with a four-man midfield, to try and dominate the central area of the pitch, Toni Kroos and Fede will be deep, while Isco and Luka Modric will be trying to impact and spark things in the final third. Madrid’s wingers got little joy against Atalanta last time out, and so you can expect Rodrygo Goes to be up front with Karim Benzema in a front-two – the two players who combined for the winning goal against Elche.
Their win on Friday was typical Atalanta. Overcrowding the opposition in possession, and once they win the ball back, their intentions are always to look vertical. They’ll have runners off the ball as options for the man in possession, usually one of them takes away a defender to leave a gap for a teammate who’s making an overlapping run or a late arrival into the box, they completely tore Spezia apart with this. Not only are they physical in the air from set-pieces, but they’re so intelligent in possession, very rarely do you see Atalanta progress the ball in an attacking transition and waste an opportunity to have a shot at goal. Thibaut Courtois will certainly be hoping the defence in front of him are more solid than they’ve been in recent months. Just look at how Raphael Varane was beaten in the air and caught napping as Elche took the lead through a Dani Calvo header. It’ll need to be a very mature, professional and gritty performance by Madrid if they are to reach the quarter-finals, because a third consecutive round of 16 elimination would be a disaster on all accounts.
The 13-time European Champions can’t rely on their club record signing Eden Hazard, who may need to go under the knife once more on an ankle tear. Inspirational right-back Dani Carvajal is still missing, while Alvaro Odriozola, Marcelo and Mariano Diaz are also on the sidelines through injury. Casemiro is suspended for too many bookable offences. Ramos and Benzema are back though, two players who carry a lot of responsibility on either end of the pitch.
For the visitors, Hans Hateboer is out with a fractured foot, and Freuler is suspended for the red card he got in the first-leg. There were concerns over Duvan Zapata’s involvement, but he got minutes against Spezia so should be in contention for a start. And Cristian Romero will be back too. The two form men coming into this clash are Mario Pasalic, who scored a brace on Friday, and Atalanta’s top scorer Luis Muriel, who is capable of producing a brilliant moment out of nothing, as he showed against Spezia.
The last time they met?
Even though Atalanta played over 75 minutes with 10-men, they held firm and true to the Italian game. After the sending off, they camped in their own area in a back-five, and sometimes it was a back-seven, with every player back in the Atalanta half. When that happens, Madrid struggle to score, even against poorer sides in La Liga, they struggle to open up low-block defensive set-ups. Fortunately, Atalanta fell asleep late on and Mendy scored a sensational goal with his right-foot to win it. It’ll be a completely different contest this evening, expect goals, and a lot of entertainment. Madrid shouldn’t look to sit-back and rest on their 1-0 lead, Atalanta certainly will keep pushing. For Madrid though, it’s about picking the right moments and capitalising on those half-openings which the likes of Kroos, Modric and Valverde will have to produce for Benzema and Rodrygo to finish.