Real's brush with CL oblivion to spur them on
The 21,000 capacity Gewiss Stadium will see the first match between Serie A side Atalanta take on world giants Real Madrid. Neither team are where they want to be in the league, with the hosts not quite in the top four at the time of writing, and any occasion when Zinedine Zidane's charges aren't topping the pile in La Liga is normally deemed to be an aberration by the board and fans. The visitors are on a great run however, forcing themselves back into contention behind city rivals Atlético. Similar could be said of I Nerazzurri, especially by blowing away free-scoring Napoli twice in different competitions. Real are another echelon up, of course, and can count themselves lucky still to be in the Champions League. Read our preview here:
The hosts impressed in the group stage, coming a clear second in a group that contained very recent finalists Liverpool and Ajax respectively, even managing to beat the Premier League champions at Anfield back when it seemed next to impossible for another club to go there and get a victory. Experienced head coach Gian Piero Gasperini is tactically savvy, and he will have learned a lot from his side's battles with some of the elite in 2020/2021 already. Although they conceded eight in those six games, their overall defensive work was impressive; led by 22 year old Argentinian Cristian Romero, the trio in the centre are likely to match their adversaries' attack in shape, but will be assisted by both midfielders dropping in and screening them, making it difficult for them to be played through, if not necessarily around. Romero in particular looks almost like the complete package at such a young age - strong in the air and on the ground, very comfortable on the ball, and not short of speed. All of his attributes will be tested to the extreme by the fluidity Real possess up top.
All Mod cons
Despite the number of injuries on Zidane's roster, Los Blancos have rallied under intense scrutiny and pressure, and although they have played a game more, they are now within touching distance of Atlético at the summit. Naturally, any team missing Eden Hazard, captain Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, and Marcelo at the same time is going to suffer, which is why for once they're not actually favourites with the bookies to win a game. The old timers in midfield have dragged them out of the mire, and no-one is more responsible for that than former Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modrić. Now approaching 36, perhaps the best Croatian footballer ever has rolled back the years in tandem with Toni Kroos and Casemiro, which, while far from the most fleet of foot triumvirate left in the knockout stage, are still one of the most formidable units, possessing the know-how to still run rings around more athletic individuals. His range of passing will be crucial in overcoming the medium to low block Atalanta will put up, and, lacking a true focal point or prolific goalscorer in attack, there might be more joy to be had in spreading the play out wide to get around their opponents.
The first Ferland
The ghostly stands in Bergamo are unlikely to be witness to an especially open affair, and it is bound to be as a consequence tight in terms of the final scoreline. For once, it could truly be claimed that Madrid are weaker in the forward department than their opponents, but the encounter could be decided by how advanced the visitors' full-backs can get to disrupt the resolute organisation under Gasperini's tutelage. 888sport are offering odds of 2.95 for Zidane's troops to squeak the first leg.