Football Features

Can Zidane tap into a “legendary winning mentality” for Real Madrid’s Last Dance?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 12:01, 24 February 2021 | Updated: 12:32, 4 November 2022

Real Madrid are heading for a Round of 16 Champions League clash with Italian side Atalanta.

After winning Europe’s top competition for three straight years between 2016 and 2018, Los Blancos have exited the tournament at the Round of 16 in the past two seasons.

An obviously talented squad now seems unable to raise itself for the big European occasion like they once used to under Zinedine Zidane (or, indeed, under Carlo Ancelotti, with whom they won the fabled La Décima in 2014).

This Atalanta side is one of the most thrilling in Europe, playing some absolutely breathtaking attacking football, and can be a devastating counter-attacking side as well. They represent a massive challenge for what is an ageing Los Blancos side.

Relevant Sky Bet odds for Atalanta vs Real Madrid:

  • Atalanta to win5/4
  • Draw13/5
  • Real Madrid to win2/1
  • Karim Benzema to score and Real Madrid to win13/5
  • Real Madrid -15/1

All odds stated in this article are accurate at the time of publication (11:54, 24/02/2021). You have to be 18+ to gamble. BeGambleAware.

The Last Dance?

In May 2016, Real Madrid beat Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final. It wasn’t a great game, Madrid’s goal was offside, and in the end it needed a penalty shootout to settle things.

But of course that kick-started an incredible run in Europe where they won three straight titles. Zidane, who walked away after that third triumph, had won the Champions League in every single season he’d been a manager.

Anyway, what’s interesting to note is the team that Madrid put out in the 2016 showpiece in Milan against their local rivals:

At right-back was Dani Carvajal, a player who, but for injury, would be first-choice today. Marcelo at left-back is now a back-up (and injured) but Zidane isn’t ready to give up on him just yet and plays him often.

At centre-back Sergio Ramos is of course still at the club (also injured) and his partner in that final would have been Raphaël Varane but for the Frenchman’s injury; Varane is fit now, though, and still at the club.

In attack Karim Benzema (hey, guess what, he’s injured!) still leads the line for Los Blancos, albeit now as the main goalscorer, whereas before he was in the team to supply chances to their goal-getting wide-forwards.

The midfield three then was Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos. The midfield three now? Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos.

Nacho, then an unused substitute, is still at the club as an oft-used back-up. Then two men who came on that night in 2016 were Lucas Vázquez and Isco, and both are still at the Bernabeu, and Vázquez in particular is playing now more than ever.

Real Madrid’s average positions and most used XI in 2020/21 La Liga

All that considered: this is an old Real Madrid side. They’ve been playing together in the same line-ups and the same style of play for half a decade or more. They were already straining at the seams when Gareth Bale dragged them over the line in 2018; that’s why Zidane walked away from the job (only to be lured back in by his love for the club).

It’s also why no matter how hard he tries this season, Zidane cannot rouse them to play anywhere near their ‘old’ level. The cumulative fatigue of making all those late tournament runs every single year, coupled with the lack of significant sporting investment, has left Los Blancos looking embarrassingly withered and, as mentioned earlier, absolutely riddled with injury problems. Their matchday squad for the Atalanta game has literally only got 11 fit senior players in it, the rest are kids. 11 players!

Madrid are where they are: second in La Liga and in the Champions League Round of 16, in part because they have enough innate knowledge and a legendary winning mentality that can grind out wins over teams who don’t really go at them. Borussia Mönchengladbach outplayed them twice in the group stage (only to fail to win both games), Shakhtar outplayed and beat them as well. Only Inter’s hysterical inadequacy allowed Los Blancos to squeak through.

Atalanta contain no such inadequacies.

This season in Serie A and the Champions League, Atalanta have scored 2.17 goals per-match from 1.55 assists per-match, having taken 15.38 shots (with 5.76 finding the target). They’ve also created 12.07 chances per-match and 2.41 of those have been ‘big chances’.

By contrast, Real Madrid have scored 1.77 goals per match from 1.27 assists (from La Liga and Europe combined). They’ve taken 13.8 shots, with 4.9 of those hitting the target. They’ve created 11.1 chances per-match and 1.9 of those have been ‘big chances’. Across the board they come up short against Atalanta.

Basically, Atalanta should massacre Real Madrid. They are a quick and dynamic side much as Shakhtar were, but they are loaded with talent in a way Shakhtar weren’t. Moreover, they are voracious goalscorers. This should be a beatdown.

Here’s the thing though: it probably won’t be.

Sure Atalanta are far superior as a goalscoring force while Madrid are plagued by injury issues at the minute, and have an old, fatigued squad. But Los Blancos have two things in their favour: first their defence is solid, they’ve conceded just 0.93 goals per-match in La Liga and the Champions League this season. They know how to tighten it up and stop opponents scoring.

More than that, Real Madrid know how to win. They know what it takes and how to lift themselves for the big occasion. Can they dominate a league title anymore? Who knows, but they absolutely can lift their game for big occasions. Hell, in 2020/21 they’ve already beaten Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, their two biggest games of the season so far.

Given the age of the squad, and the injuries they’re all carrying, this could very well be Real Madrid’s ‘Last Dance’. But goodness, do not count them out; they could really end the show with a bang.


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