In a straightforward night of football, Real Madrid cruised beyond Atalanta 3-1 in the Champions League.
The win puts Los Blancos back in the quarter-finals of the European Cup for the first time since 2018. What did we learn?
1. King Karim rules from this throne
Karim Benzema never got the respect he deserves. One of the hottest young strikers around just over a decade ago, a move to Real Madrid saw him use his considerable skill-set to play a team-focused role, allowing Cristiano Ronalo to take centre-stage.
Well Cristiano is gone and now it’s Benzema sitting on the throne. The Frenchman is Madrid’s top scorer by a mile and the club rely so enormously on him yet he shoulders this burden with ease. His goal tonight – his 21st of the season which is 15 more than the next highest scorer at the club – was a simple finish, but his overall play was just sublime. Moving into space, bringing his team-mates into it.
No player created more chances (2) or had more shots on target (2) than Karim Benzema against Atalanta.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 16, 2021
Karim Benzema is the fifth highest goalscorer in the history of the Champions League. He needs just two more goals in Europe to surpass Real Madrid legend Raúl’s total of 71 and move into fourth. He has four Champions League wins (one more than Raúl) and is unquestionably one of the very best strikers of his generation.
2. Atalanta out of puff
One year ago Atalanta slaughtered Valencia at this stage of the 2019/20 Champions League, winning 8-4 on aggregate. They were the most breathtaking hurricane of fresh air into what had become a tired and predictable competition.
Sadly that hurricane has now slowed to a gentle breeze that might occasionally make blades of grass waver like on the title screen of a JRPG. It’s sad to see Atalanta reduced to this because Gian Piero Gasperini’s gameplan was clearly as sharp and incisive as ever but his players were utterly incapable of carrying it out against a Real Madrid side nowhere near their best.
3. Luka Modric or: the case for rest
Everyone knows this season has been running on a compressed schedule and has been making a big deal about how that has impacted the player’s physical wellbeing, but the thing is fatigue has been an issue for a lot longer than that.
After help drag Croatia to the World Cup final in 2018 (and Real Madrid to three straight Champions League wins), Luka Modric looked a spent force. The skill was there but he looked physically exhausted and limped through 18 months of football.
Luka Modric’s game by numbers vs. Atalanta:
92% pass accuracy
109 touches (most)
16 ball recoveries (most)
5 interceptions (most)
4 duels won
1 chance created
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 16, 2021
But then the Covid-enforced hiatus made him (and everyone) take three months of rest. And when Modric returned, he looked a player transformed. Since that return in June 2020, Modric has been absolutely lights out. Even now at 35 years of age, he has been producing moments of magic and dominant displays just like he used to do back in 2018.
Modric is the case study for why footballers need more rest. Cancel international friendlies if you have to and just pepper the season with week or two-week long breaks. Reduce the physical burden on players!
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4. Sportiell-oh deary me
Pierluigi Gollini played well in the first-leg against Real Madrid, holding Los Blancos to just one flukey shot from distance. Then for some reason, Gian Piero Gasperini took him out of the team to bring Marco Sportiello back in.
That backfired tonight. His scuffed clearance led directly to Madrid’s first goal which almost instantly put the tie beyond Atalanta. And then a minute after Luis Muriel had given Atalanta a sliver of a chance, Sportiello failed to protect his near-post and let Marco Asensio make it 3-1 almost instantly, kneecapping any hope of a comeback.
That goal was the 16th he had conceded in 17 Champions League games. A horrific record and his inclusion directly led to Atalanta’s capitulation against Real Madrid. Why oh why did Gasperini bring him in?
5. Duck and cover, Madrid are rolling again!
Real Madrid were awful in their Champions League group stage. Luckily for them Inter Milan were worse and Shakhtar Donetsk, who so brilliantly beat Madrid home and away, lost their nerve right at the very end and allowed Madrid to sneak through.
Anyway, now they’re through. And after two relatively comfortable wins over Atalanta (comfortable compared to the Italians’ reputation, anyway) wouldn’t you know it but they’re back in the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time since they won it.
And now they’re there, would you bet against them? Okay sure you could argue they are one of the weakest of all the possible quarter-finalists and nowhere near the level of a Bayern Munich or a Manchester City… but they’re Real Madrid! They don’t need to be the best team in Europe to win the damn thing. Of their four recent Champions League triumphs only one (2017) came when they were actually the best and in 2016 and 2018 they were actually and actively bad yet somehow made it happen.
So yes, 2021 Real Madrid are not an elite side but they do not need to be an elite side to win the Champions League. Duck and cover, sports fans, Los Blancos are rolling again!