Real Madrid struggled to break down 10-man Atalanta until Ferland Mendy scored an 86th-minute winner in the first leg of round 16 to hand the Spanish giant a 1-0 victory.
Despite a slew of injuries, Madrid entered the game as the main favorite, and Atalanta’s chances decreased further when midfielder Remo Freuler was sent off in the 17th minute after being adjudged to have denied a scoring opportunity.
“The match was ruined,” said coach Gian Piero Gasperini of Atalanta.
“I don’t know what the outcome might have been. We may still have lost, but it would have been a much different and better match.”
Madrid, which lacked players such as forward Karim Benzema and midfielder Eden Haza
Madrid, which lacked players such as forward Karim Benzema, midfielder Eden Hazard and captain Sergio Ramos, also found it hard to test Atalanta goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini until the end of the first half, when he pulled off a great reaction save to keep the header of Casemiro from the free-kick of Toni Kroos.
Just when it looked like Atalanta would hold on for a draw, after a corner, Mendy received the ball outside the area and curled a shot from 20 yards to the right side of the net.
“Yeah, we were playing the game, but it wasn’t meant to be Ferland who took the shot,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said with a smile.
“Tonight we didn’t have a fantastic game, but what was Mo? We didn’t have a perfect game tonight, but the outcome was what was most important. We needed to score away from home.”
The second leg is in Madrid on March 16. Atalanta can take consolation from the fact that this season it has won all its European matches away from home, including a 2-0 win at Anfield over Liverpool.
“In Madrid, we just have to win,” Gasperini said. “It’s easy—we can’t overthink, we just have one shot. We’re gotta win.”
In the other round-of-16 match on Wednesday, Manchester City beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-0.