They have lived on edge this season, but when it came to it Real Madrid were able to ease their way back into the quarter-finals of the Champions League after two years away, returning to a place that is much more familiar for the club. Led by the velocity of Vinícius Júnior, the control of Luka Modric and the grace of Karim Benzema, they were on their way to the next round with goals from Benzema, Sergio Ramos and Marco Asensio on a windy, quiet night at Valdebebas.
Ultimately they were just too good for Atalanta, and yet when he looks back on this tie Gian Piero Gasperini may well conclude that his team were complicit in their own demise. Over the two legs a red card, an awful gift of a goal and a penalty were the key moments that led to Atalanta’s elimination, 4-1 on aggregate. As, perhaps, was their failure to be themselves.
A first leg conditioned by Remo Freuler’s early sending off had been won by Ferland Mendy’s late goal, concluding a set-piece routine that Zidane admitted was not supposed to end at his feet and finally breaking Atalanta’s resistance. But the regret went beyond just the result. “We didn’t play as we wanted; parking the bus is not our style,” Gasperini had said, and nor was it in their interest this time. They were not going to wait, and they should have led after just 127 seconds. But that identity – their identity – did not last long. And when it returned, it was too late.
Had they scored at the start, who knows how it might have ended. Luis Muriel pulled back to Robin Gosens but with a weak wave of the foot on the edge of the six-yard box his shot went straight at Thibaut Courtois.
A tentative Madrid found themselves forced back, Ramos having to stick in a toe as Muriel slipped the ball through for Mario Pasalic, Cristian Romero seeing a volley blocked and Berat Djimsiti’s effort going over. The early pattern was also illustrated by Courtois kicking the ball straight out of play, which was at least the sensible thing to do – and how Marco Sportiello would wish he had followed suit at the other end.
Modric began to take control, Vinícius was up and running, and Atalanta’s momentum soon vanished. Madrid might have scored when Vinícius and Benzema combined, only for Djimsiti to dive in front of the Brazilian; they did score just after the half-hour, when Sportiello hit the ball straight at Modric. The pass was dreadful, the control superb, and Benzema was in support to put Madrid ahead, Atalanta’s most decisive shot having been aimed at their own foot.
The Italian side were denied what might have been another when Muriel was found just outside the area only for the chance to be curtailed by the clock and the referee’s whistle for the break, which arrived bang on time. Atalanta’s players departed down the tunnel shaking their heads and returned with Duván Zapata replacing Pasalic. Not long after, Gosens was replaced by Josip Ilicic, who sought to liven up proceedings.
Yet by the time Ilicic was introduced, Vinícius had almost scored a glorious second, evading defenders only to nudge fractionally wide. And if that run did not yield a goal, the next one did, effectively ending the contest. Ilicic lost possession and Vinícius was away again, Rafael Tolói bringing him down as he headed into the area. From the spot Ramos scored his 20th consecutive penalty for Madrid.
Atalanta awoke, but they had too far to go and Courtois standing in their way. Ruslan Malinovskyi’s brilliant ball cut a path through the white shirts to leave Zapata one on one, but he shot straight at Courtois and the same happened when he escaped Raphaël Varane’s lunge and let fly again. Between those chances, Benzema had headed against Sportiello and put the rebound off the post. As a tie it was over, even if as a game there was time for more, Muriel bending in a brilliant free-kick before Asensio ended it to ease Madrid into the quarter-finals.