Four things Atalanta must do to stage a Champions League comeback and upset Real Madrid to advance

Atalanta enter Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg with Real Madrid down 1-0 after Ferland Mendy’s wonder strike at Gewiss Stadium earned Zinedine Zidane’s men a narrow win and a potentially important away goal.

The Italians had been up against for most of the match with a debatable red card for Remo Freuler meaning that the hosts played for over an hour with just 10 men and still only caved in late on despite Real bossing possession.

Ideally, Atalanta need a repeat of that first leg in some ways with a few key differences if they want to stun everyone by making the UCL quarterfinals for the second consecutive season — their two first forays into the continental elite.

Obviously, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side need to score at least once over the 90 minutes to stand a chance of pushing the two-legged tie beyond the 180-minute mark but one goal is not the strongest of leads for the Spaniards to rest upon and there is little left to lose for the Bergamo outfit.

Here is a blueprint for Atalanta to follow if they are to cause another memorable European upset.

1. Pepper Real’s goal

While their ability to hold out until the final five minutes of normal time was admirable, the fact that La Dea did not manage to a get a single shot on target and only registered two off target was indicative of how much control Real had after Freuler’s red card.

It will sound very obvious, but Atalanta need shots on goal that are hitting the target if they are to score on the night to give themselves hope of advancing. From distance can work, as Mendy showed in the opening leg, and that is something Atalanta are capable of delivering as they average 16.22 per match in Serie A — the second highest in the league.

Luis Muriel, Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic are all good enough to punish Real if the opportunities are created so the Orobici must correct this first leg failing as swiftly as possible.

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2. See more of the ball

More possession in the return leg will not necessarily win Atalanta this tie — it will always be a question of what they do with that ball that determines their fate.

However, with 11 men against 11 again, it should be easier for the visitors to establish some sort of foothold in the game that should enable them to be less overrun than they were in Bergamo. This is a bit of a taller order for Gasperini’s men than shooting as they attempt 542 passes per match in Italy while Madrid attempt 593 per match when at home.

Atalanta’s style is not to pass teams to death, they would rather attack with pace and purpose, but they will have to starve the ball supply to Real’s distributors if they want to succeed.

3. Freuler factor

Gasperini’s men missed Freuler once he was sent off in the opening leg and it changed the complexion of the game entirely for the Italians.

In fact, it is not the first time that Atalanta have missed the Switzerland international, also their vice-captain, as his injury late on against Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s quarterfinals contributed towards their very late collapse which allowed the French capital outfit to advance dramatically.

Playing for over an hour with one player less is going to impact almost any side at this level so even though Freuler himself will be out, being back to 11 against 11 evens up the playing field once more. It will be interesting to see how the side goes about replacing their midfielder who has played 23 of the team’s 27 domestic matches, though.

4. Take advantage of Madrid mediocrity

The other reason for Atalanta to feel confident of pulling off an upset is the fact that Real are not the powerhouse that they once were — especially this season.

Shakhtar Donetsk beat them home and away and still dropped into the UEFA Europa League and a poor Inter Milan side that crashed out completely still scored twice in Madrid.

That fragility still exists and we have also seen Real stunned in the Copa del Rey. Atalanta at their relentless best can exploit that and hurt Real, so a merciless mentality needs to be instilled by Gasperini if his players are to take the opportunities that come their way.

If they can do that, then there is no reason why they cannot emulate Shakhtar’s victory in Madrid earlier this edition to potentially reach the quarters against the odds.

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