2020-21 Champions League Round Of 16 Leg 1 Preview: Atalanta-Real Madrid

Posted By Tyler Everett on February 24, 2021

We can interpret the last couple weeks for Real Madrid in a couple ways.

Let’s start with the more obvious, and more popular takeaway, from a stretch that has seen one key RM contributor after another suffer injuries. On one hand, it’s understandable to rule out Real Madrid, in this condition, eliminating a solid Atalanta team over two legs.

At the same time, it’s become hard to shake the feeling that the more adversity this team faces, the more likely it is to shock everyone.

Who’s Out Now?

How much time do you have? A team that was already missing Eden Hazard, Fede Valverde and Sergio Ramos recently lost right back Dani Carvajal to another injury.

In addition to Carvajal’s likely absence vs. Atalanta, Zinedine Zidane’s team will also be without one of the most dependable (and overworked?) players in Europe in recent seasons in Karim Benzema. There’s a reason Atalanta’s odds changed as soon as Benzema’s absence was confirmed.

The veteran French striker wasn’t his team’s entire offense, but it’s hard to think of anyone, including Lionel Messi, who has to carry a bigger burden up top.

So now that Benzema is out, surely that means RM will simply be too undermanned to hang with Atalanta, right?

Real Madrid’s Knack For Bouncing Back

There’s a reason I’m phrasing that as a question, though. Recent history has shown Real Madrid to be unbelievably resilient*.

Real Madrid got off the mat in impressive fashion a number of times en route to the La Liga title a year ago. More recently, losses to Alavés on November 28 and Shakhtar Donetsk on December 1 were followed, of course, by back-to-back-to-back improbable shutout wins over Sevilla, Monchengladbach and Atletico Madrid. In fact, when we thought Zidane’s team was reeling after that Shakhtar loss, they won their next six in all competitions by a combined score of 13-2.

*But also incapable of avoiding head-scratching losses.

Are Experience And Grit Enough Vs. Atalanta?

This team’s toughness allowed it to win its last four despite a lineup roughly half-full of backups against Huesca, Getafe, Valencia and Valladolid from February 6-20. RM enters this game on a roll, somehow, despite missing so many key players. But does beating up on Spain’s relegation “contenders” mean they can hang with Atalanta?

Logic tells me the answer to that question is no. I like the midfield for Real Madrid, where Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro have been unbelievable, game after game this season. They haven’t seen attacking pressure like what they’ll face from Atalanta all season, though. And I don’t know what’s more concerning – their teammates behind them or those up top. OK, if I really think about it, the answer is definitely the latter.

Thibaut Courtois remains phenomenal, and Ferland Mendy and Raphael Varane are solid pieces in front of him. The question is whether stand-in center back Nacho and backup right back Lucas Vazquez can keep Atalanta (whose attack is a bit more potent than, say, Huesca’s) at bay. And I can’t rationally come up with an answer other than “not quite.”

Can Real Madrid Manufacture A Few More Goals?

The bad news is that the attack is the team’s Achilles heel with Karim Benzema. Without him, it seems like they’re going to be almost entirely dependent on set pieces to score.

Real Madrid will have to take advantage of an inconsistent Atalanta back line. Atalanta allowed just one goal in its last three UCL group stage matches (against Liverpool, Midtjylland and Ajax), but also let in five goals by Liverpool earlier in group play.

This calendar year, Atalanta’s defense has held up as follows against the top teams in Italy:

  • They shut out AC Milan 3-0 on January 23 in Serie A.
  • In two games against Lazio (a 3-2 win in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal on January 27 and a 3-1 loss in Serie A on January 31), they struggled.
  • In three recent battles with Napoli (a two-legged Coppa Italia semifinal showdown plus a Serie A match), Atalanta won all three, by a combined score of 7-3.

Atalanta also played both Inter Milan (November 8) and Juventus (December 16) to 1-1 draws earlier this season. What I’m saying is I like their chances against an RM front line of Mariano, Vinicius and Marco Asensio.

Will Real Madrid Rise To The Challenge?

Los Blancos obviously couldn’t have won La Liga a year ago without faring well against Spain’s best clubs. This year, they’ve once again been impressive in tough match-ups. With two victories in must-win UCL group stage games vs. Inter Milan and a solid defeat of Monchengladbach on the final day of group play, Real Madrid is not lacking big-game experience this season.

This team also impressed against Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Barcelona. RM earned a 3-1 win over Barcelona (October 24), a 1-0 win over Sevilla (December 5) and a 2-0 win over Atlético (December 12)*. These guys’ problem is not how they play against their toughest opponents.

But no matter how many times I’ve seen RM find a way when backed into a corner against a quality opponent, I think Atalanta will be too much. Without their best defender (Ramos) and their best offensive piece (Benzema), Los Blancos won’t have enough.

Final score: Atalanta 2, Real Madrid 1

*The players at Zidane’s disposal in those matches were much better than what he’s working with this week.

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