Real Madrid progressed through to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2017-18, after beating Atalanta 3-1 at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano to clinch the tie 4-1.
Zinedine Zidane’s side came into it with a slender 1-0 advantage courtesy of Ferland Mendy’s away goal in Italy, and so the French coach decided to go with a back three, with Lucas Vazquez and Mendy as the two wing-backs. And it worked, although the early periods were shaky.
After just a few minutes, Atalanta nearly had the dream start. Luis Muriel did well to avoid a couple of challenges from Lucas and got to the byline, before his cross found Robin Gosens in a pocket of space. But instead of leaning into the shot with power, the midfielder was leaning back and in the end, it was a tame poke into a grateful Thibaut Courtois’ grasp. An early warning sign for Madrid.
It took the hosts a quarter of an hour to get settled, and once they did, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric began dictating the tempo of the game. Better off the ball movement, and quicker passing from the 13-time champions gave them the foothold in the second leg, after negotiating a difficult opening period.
And finally, an attack which nearly materialised into a goal. A lovely transition from Madrid, Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema combined brilliantly, the Frenchman’s back-heel to Vinicius looked like it only needed a finish, though the Brazilian’s final attempt was blocked well by a sliding Atalanta man.
Just after the half hour mark, a gift for Madrid. Goalkeeper Marco Sportiello’s attempted clearance lacked direction, accuracy and height, and it was at Modric who controlled stylishly, accelerated into the box and cut it back on a plate for Benzema to tap-in his 70th goal in the competition.
Madrid were just the far better team, and Zidane’s tactical set-up worked a treat. It was sucking the life out of Atalanta, who couldn’t press as high up as they knew Madrid would get in-behind, and they couldn’t do much in possession as Madrid were compact and held the passing channels shut. After the break, whenever Atalanta decided to enforce something, there was always a Real transition in response.
Vinicius led the charge after the break, with what would have been the solo goal of the tournament. The Brazilian started well inside his own half, helping out defensively, before playing a nice one-two combination with Mendy. Once he was in full-flight, four Atalanta men crowded around Vini as he dinked his way into the box, but from point-blank range, he poked his shot agonisingly wide.
At the hour mark, Vincius was at it again. Stealing possession in the centre of the park, and a terrific run forced a dangled leg by Rafael Tolói. Penalty given, penalty scored – Sergio Ramos doubled the lead.
Ramos was then taken off with 30 minutes still to play, and you could see that had a clear impact on the game. Atalanta began to grow into the game, and it was Ruslan Malinovskiy who was the catalyst. His lovely angled pass to Duvan Zapata had the forward in, but Courtois stuck out his right-boot to make a smart save. And straight down the other end, Benzema should have buried the tie, but his header from Lucas’ cross was first kept out by Sportiello, and then the rebound was kept out by the post.
With quarter of an hour to play, Malinovskiy again had Zapata clean through on goal, but he was one-on-one with Courtois, as the Belgian was off his line quickly to save the attempt. They did get a goal, when Muriel’s fabulous free-kick gave Courtois no-chance at saving it. If that goal had given them a bit of hope, moments later, all hope was ripped away from them. Marco Asensio had only been on the pitch less than a minute, but his first two touches were to take a touch and then make it 3-1 on another swift counter led by Lucas, who put it on a plate for his countryman. Relief for Madrid, who executed Zidane’s tactics really well. Now focus must return to La Liga, while they await their quarter-final fate.
Up next for Real Madrid?
Who? Celta Vigo
When? Saturday 20th March @ 16:15 CET
Where? Estadio Municipal de Balaídos, Vigo