Atalanta are well known for their free-flowing nature and when Cristian Romero, the center-back stated, “Our idea is to attack 90 minutes” the intention of the Italian side was clear – attack and pressurize the fragile backline of Real Madrid. But at Bergamo, the hosts discovered themselves down to 10-men early on and had to play to survive and their job was almost done until Ferland Mendy showed up and gave Los Blancos the edge.
— Real Madrid C.F. 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) February 24, 2021
As has been the case in recent weeks, Zinedine Zidane had to travel with an extremely depleted squad to the Gewiss Stadium due to injuries. Isco was handed a rare start as the focal point of attack in the absence of Karim Benzema, while Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio flanked him in the attack.
Stand-in captain Raphael Varane made his 350th appearance for the Bernabeu outfit, and Toni Kroos also became the German with the joint-most appearances for the club.
The Real Madrid bench was less than stellar and had Mariano Diaz – himself on the fringes – as the only recognizable first-team player.
Even though Atalanta are known for their attacking mindset, still their start was slow like the visitors, but the game witnessed the noted moment in the 17th minute.
A quick break saw Ferland Mendy race through on goal before he was cynically brought down on the edge of the area by Remo Freuler. Referee Tobias Stieler wasted little time in reaching for his pocket to brandish a red card.
Red card for Atalanta! A nightmare start!
Remo Freuler is sent off for denying a goalscoring opportunity after tangling with Real Madrid's Ferland Mendy on the edge of his own penalty area! 🔴 pic.twitter.com/eVdMS1bYbB
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 24, 2021
There were heavy protests from the Atalanta players and coaches but the decision was allowed to stand, with the VAR not intervening.
While the veracity of Freuler’s foul on Mendy is not in doubt, questions are bound to be asked over whether it was worth a red card.
In the immediate aftermath of the foul, it was taken for granted that a yellow card would be shown.
Gian Piero Gasperini was beside himself with bemusement, and an assistant behind him seemed confident that the decision would be overturned as he gestured to the VAR with his hand.
The Atalanta players were livid and rightly so, especially in light of the harsh red card shown to Freuler earlier in the game.
16:57 – Remo Freuler's red card was the earliest by a player in a Champions League game against Real Madrid since April 2011, when Peter Crouch was dismissed in the 15th minute while playing for Spurs. Marching.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 24, 2021
However, the center referee’s decision stood, and Atalanta had to play out the final 72 minutes of the game one man short.
The rules of the game state that a red card should be shown when a clear goalscoring opportunity has been denied and thus it cannot be argued that Mendy was cynically denied a goalscoring chance, but the matter of it being clear is open for debate.
Then Casemiro’s customary yellow card for a cynical challenge on Duvan Zapata in the 23rd minute means that he would miss the second leg – a costly miss for sure!
23' | Yellow card to Casemiro for a foul on Duván Zapata. He will miss the return leg.#AtalantaRealMadrid 0-0
— 𝗥𝗠𝗢𝗻𝗹𝘆 (@ReaIMadridOnly) February 24, 2021
However, he should arguably not have seen out the game. He had been guilty of simulation midway through the second half after coming together with Rafael Toloi.
His compatriot had barely touched him, but the Real Madrid number 14 threw himself on the ground and rolled around on the floor seeking a penalty.
Committing such acts in this age of VAR is extremely risky.
The numerical disadvantage had the hosts on the back foot and decided to hold off Real Madrid.
Madrid had ridden the rhythm until then, keeping possession where they could and trying to slow the game, conscious that this is a two-legged tie and in three weeks’ time some of their nine absentees will have returned.
Toni Kroos vs Atalanta:
• 154 touches.
• 129 passes completed.
• 94% pass accuracy.
• 15/19 long passes completed.
• 4 chances created.
• 1/1 dribbles completed (100%).
• 4 defensive actions.
Flawless yet again. pic.twitter.com/UrnnopeZW2
— TC. (@totalcristiano) February 24, 2021
With Kroos and Modric, that is a workable plan and an extra man helped them to take an even firmer hold, although Gasperini’s side initially sought to maintain that pace, Joakim Mæhle horribly skewing a shot as he ran in at the far post.
Madrid gradually started to set their foot on the paddle – thinking that this was a game to win, not just to survive – Nacho sliding in to deny Luis Muriel soon after, those were limited and in the final minutes of the half-chances appeared. Isco shot wide from Modric’s pass, Vinícius’s effort was deflected over, and Marco Asensio headed into Pierluigi Gollini’s hands.
Muriel reminded everyone that this might not be easy, first turning to shoot wide and then going down in a challenge with Lucas Vazquez. The shouts for a penalty echoed loud but were not entertained by the referee.
The best chance of the opening 45 minutes came right on the stroke of half-time.
Kroos stood over a free-kick and delivered a trademark pristine cross into the area, which Casemiro attacked with a direct header at goal.
The ball, however, went straight to Pierluigi Gollini, who produced an excellent reflex save to keep the scores level.
The second half started with Real Madrid fashioning another good chance in the 47th minute. Luka Modric’s shot from the edge of the area was narrowly deflected wide of the bottom post in seemingly slow motion, with everybody rooted to the spot.
The rest of the second half was relatively devoid of goalmouth action, with Real Madrid having just one shot on target until the final 10 minutes.
As time ran out, both managers made some changes in a bid to influence the game.
Luis Muriel went off for Josip Ilisic, while Mariano and youngsters Sergio Arribas and Hugo Duro all came on for Real Madrid.
Ferland Mendy is a left-back. This was his winner for Real Madrid against Atalanta.
It was his wrong foot 🤭
— B/R Football (@brfootball) February 24, 2021
Despite the changes, chances continued to come at a premium until the deadlock was broken by an unlikely source in the 86th minute.
From a little outside the area, off a Kroos short corner not dealt with, the left-back Ferland Mendy bent in a brilliant shot to rifle home a right-footed curler – Real Madrid 1 Atalanta 0.
The game was indeed a dull affair.
“We found it hard to get the goal and it wasn’t a great game but we got a good result and away,” Zinedine Zidane said after the match. While Thibaut Courtois said, “I didn’t expect such a quiet night.”
Nevertheless, it was a very important away win and at home, Real Madrid would not let this advantage skip and advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2017-18.