In a tight night of action, Real Madrid beat 10-man Atalanta 0-1 in the Champions League.
This was Los Blancos’ 100th Champions League knockout match and they won it late with a superb strike. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Ferland Mendy
If any one player defined this game, it was Ferland Mendy. On a night when Real Madrid did not play well, on a night when Real Madrid had some lucky breaks with the officials, they still didn’t look like scoring. Some set-pieces were semi-threatening, but by and large Los Blancos did not appear to “have it” in Bergamo.
But Ferland Mendy most assuredly did “have it” in Bergamo. First he forced the game-changing red card with his surging run in the first-half, and then in the second-half, when the game appeared to be coasting towards a tepid 0-0 draw, Mendy appeared atop the box, smacking a chancer with his right-foot from 20 yards that sailed beyond the defence and beyond the despairing dive of Pierluigi Gollini. A stunning, scorching goal to give Los Blancos a scarcely deserved victory.
If Real Madrid are inevitable (and they are) then you can call him Thanos Mendy.
Ferland Mendy is Real Madrid's ninth starting outfield player to attempt a shot against Atalanta…
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 24, 2021
Loser: Remo Freuler
Imagine being an Atalanta player coming into this Real Madrid game, easily the biggest of your career, and getting sent off 17 minutes in? Well Remo Freuler doesn’t have to imagine it, he was unfortunate to live it.
A slick couple of passes sees Ferland Mendy sent streaming behind the Atalanta defence. Men are coming across to cover, one of which is Remo Freuler who knocks into Mendy and takes him out. The referee blows for a foul, and everyone is expecting the yellow to emerge but it comes out as red! A terrible decision that Atalanta cannot believe. Poor Freuler makes the long walk up the tunnel, his amazing chance robbed from him unjustly. The Swiss paused several times for a VAR reprieve that never came, lending an air of tragicomedy to proceedings.
Most chances created for Real Madrid vs. Atalanta:
◉ Toni Kroos (4)
◉ Luka Modrić (4)
Most shots for Real Madrid vs. Atalanta:
◉ Luka Modrić (3)
◉ Casemiro (3)
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 24, 2021
Winner: Atalanta’s defence
Atalanta have made their name as an attacking outfit scoring more goals than they concede, but after their red card tonight they showed a different side to their game as they camped in defence and shut Real Madrid out for almost 80 minutes.
Cristian Romero, Berat Djimsiti and Raphael Toloi were absolutely immense as they anchored the Atalanta back-line to rebuff the Madrid attacks. Toloi had a game-high 7 clearances plus 4 tackles, Djimsiti had 4 clearances and 3 interceptions but Romero was perhaps the most proactive, clicking up with 2 blocks, 3 tackles and a game-high 5 interceptions.
It took a wonderstrike to beat them, because Madrid couldn’t break them down conventionally. If these three play like this in the second-leg, with Atalanta having 11 men and being able to attack properly, you wouldn’t count the Italian side out of this tie just yet.
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Bad decisions can happen. Referees have to call games at exceptional speed and that they get things right at all is impressive enough. Mistakes are human, and so Tobias Stieler sending off Remo Freuler was an outrageous decision but understandable.
That VAR didn’t correct it is the problem.
Again, one of the good benefits to VAR is that it can correct these errors made in the heat of the moment. And given Ferland Mendy was running away from goal with at least one defender coming around to cover, the idea that he was denied a genuine goalscoring opportunity is stretching credulity to say the least. And for VAR to not correct this error was shameful.
Winner: Hugo Duro and Sergio Arribas
Late in the day, Zinedine Zidane’s desperation saw him turn to the kids. On came Sergio Arribas and Hugo Duro. Two youngsters who were only on the bench because of Real Madrid’s injury crisis. This was an especially special moment for Duro, as he was making his Champions League debut in the knockout rounds. He didn’t score. but what a moment for both he and Arribas.
Loser: Serie A
La Liga and Serie A had endured a chastening time so far in the Champions League round of 16. Barcelona were destroyed 1-4 by PSG, Sevilla blitzed 2-3 by Borussia Dortmund and Atlético Madrid flattered to deceive before being downed by an Olivier Giroud wonderstrike.
Meanwhile Juventus were comfortably controlled by Porto, losing 2-1, and then Lazio got absolutely ripped to bits by Bayern Munich (that it only ended 1-4 was a minor miracle). So coming into this game, both sides were carrying the hopes of their league.
And quite fittingly it was heading to a tepid 0-0 draw, until Mendy’s glorious goal won it for Madrid. Now La Liga hasn’t been swept this round of play while Serie A has suffered three defeats.
Since 1987 these two leagues have been the dominant forces in world football (Serie A from 87-99 and La Liga from 05-2019 with the intervening six years being a period of shared dominance) and to see them reduced to such a state is disheartening; but La Liga can take small comfort in the fact that they didn’t lose all their games.