Real Madrid to squeeze past Atalanta into the QFs
The second leg of this season's Champions League round of the last 16 concludes this week, starting with Tuesday night's matches; one of these encounters takes place at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, where Real Madrid hold a slender 1-0 aggregate lead over Italian opponents Atalanta. In the three games since then, Zinedine Zidane's men have drawn twice and eked out a victory over Elche, and overall remain thoroughly unconvincing as challengers to city rivals Atlético for the La Liga crown. Nor have they looked like becoming winners of Europe's elite competition in 2020/2021, but will be armed with the knowledge that preventing La Dea scoring in the return clash will seal their passage. Read our preview here:
Va, va, Valverde!
Defensive midfielder and lynchpin Casemiro is ruled out of Tuesday's fixture due to suspension, but the lineup as a whole will be boosted by the return of senior defenders to the fore. True, it did require a majestic goal by left-back by Ferland Mendy to break 10-man Atalanta's stubborn resistance at the Gewiss Stadium, but this will be a game where the hosts can expect to do a much more greater proportion of their work within their own third. There will therefore, perhaps ironically, be less onus on the midfield three to hold fort, and neither Toni Kroos nor Luka Modrić were renowned for their pace and defensive contributions, even in their prime. The majority of the decreased burden will fall on the shoulders of 22 year old Uruguyan Federico Valverde, who can operate in a number of different toles in the middle of the park. the comparative youngster has already got Champions League experience under his belt this season, and has proven domestically to be effective between both boxes. Karim Benzema will also lead the line, and his movement should help pull his markers out of position for the likes of Valverde to come through beyond the striker.
Gosens down the right path
Remo Freuler's costly dismissal rules him out of a match in which the visitors must realistically score twice to have a decent shot at overturning their slender deficit. Matteo Pessina wlll take his place, but is unlikely to be fully match fit, having only featured in four games (all in the Coppa Italia) this term. More creativity and savviness will be required to first stop Madrid in their tracks, and then best the likes of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane in the heart of the Blancos' rearguard. One of the wing-backs tasked with supplying Colombian strike partnership Luis Muriel and Duván Zapata will be Robin Gosens. The left-sided player has hit an impressive nine goals in Serie A, which is a ratio of one every three games. However, he's yet to register an assist in the Champions League, and with his opponents looking so strong down the spine, it might require some innovative wing-play to get in behind.
Can't get rid of Madrid
Even a Real Madrid side not performing to the very lofty standards both supporters and the board demand cannot be dismissed easily, as they ably demonstrated only a fortnight ago. Naturally, I Nerazzurri head coach Gian Piero Gasperini will be more than aware of that, and he'll have had the gap between the legs to figure out the best way of pulling off a famous victory. However, with the hosts nearing full-strength in terms of individuals being available for Zidane to select, they are still a touch over evens to complete the job - 888sport are offering 2.10 at the time of writing.