Ferland Mendy’s late stunner gives Real Madrid edge over 10-man Atalanta

Defender’s free-kick finally breaks Italian side’s brave resistance

Atalanta 0 Real Madrid 1

"Our idea is to attack for 90 minutes," the Atalanta centre back Cristian Romero had said. Instead, down to 10 men early, he and his exhausted team-mates found themselves trying to defend for 90. They almost succeeded too but as the finish line drew close, reward for their resistance, it all fell apart. From a little outside the area, left back Ferland Mendy bent a brilliant shot into the corner to give Real Madrid a 1-0 away win that had begun to look like it might evade them.

As it hit the net, there was relief. This wasn’t the way either of them had anticipated it, and Mendy wasn’t the man anyone had expected to deliver the decisive moment. And yet there was something familiar about Madrid’s formula: a clean sheet and a defender scoring to secure a result that puts them in a perfect position to progress.

The game as it had been designed lasted only 16 minutes, until Tobias Stieler sent off Remo Freuler. Freuler, who departed down the tunnel alone shaking his head, barely able to believe what had happened, had fouled Mendy as he dashed towards the Atalanta area.

The referee’s judgment that it a clear goalscoring opportunity was as debatable as it was damaging. To be reduced to 10 men so early hurts any team; for one constructed so collectively, with such intensity, competing man to man everywhere and at a speed that aims to suffocate opponents, it is even worse.

Madrid had ridden the rhythm until then, keeping possession where they could and slowing the game, conscious that this is a two-legged tie and in three weeks’ time some of their nine absentees will have returned.

With Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, that is always a workable plan and an extra man helped them take an even firmer hold, although Gian Piero Gasperini initially resisted the temptation to make a change and Atalanta sought to maintain that pace, Joakim Mæhle horribly skewing a shot as he ran in at the far post. His expression showed that this was an even better opportunity than it had first appeared.

When Gasperini did remove Duván Zapata on the half hour, it was motivated as much by an injury as the card. Nacho Fernández had run through on goal a moment before, his sliced effort flying high and wide, and Madrid slowly took a step up, aware that the original blueprint could now be improved upon.

It was not without its risks, Nacho sliding in to deny Luis Muriel soon after, but in the final minutes of the half-chances appeared for the visitors. Isco shot wide from Modric's pass, Junior Vinícius's effort was deflected over, and Marco Asensio headed into Pierluigi Gollini's hands.

At the other end, Muriel reminded everyone that this might not be easy, first turning to shoot wide on the edge of the area and then going down in a challenge with Lucas Vázquez. The shouts for a penalty echoed loud but were not entertained by the referee. Madrid then took a tried and tested route to goal just before the break: this time, though, the Kroos dead ball and Casemiro header yielded a close-range save from Gollini.

The Atalanta goalkeeper was finding Madrid's players ever nearer. He could only watch as Modric's shot, deflected and spinning, squirmed slowly wide of his post. Next Rafael Toloi had to dive to head away. And then Vinícius controlled and somehow lifted his shot over the bar. All of those came inside six minutes of the second half and inside the six-yard box, although the next effort came from 20 yards further back. Kroos sending a rising effort over the bar.

Atalanta tired but resisted, occasionally looking for a way out. Muriel wore a face of exhaustion when he made way for Josip Ilicic. And yet although the opportunities and the energy to run were scarce, they rode out those initial advances and as time advances Madrid's opportunities were fewer: when the match reached the hour, they had taken 12 shots but only two on target. Zidane sought a finisher, someone to reach the crosses and the loose balls, and sent on Mariano Diaz but that did not bring clarity.

In fact, it took Mariano 20 minutes to get any real touch and nothing came of that either. There was not much imagination from Madrid, which is a recurring accusation, and Atalanta seemed to grow in confidence even as they ran low on gas.

The risk, indeed, seemed to be that they might be drawn into taking a step to far forward. Zidane turned to 19-year-old Sergio Arribas and 21-year-old Hugo Duro. Still nothing, a Kroos shot wide from 25 yards and that was it, until a short corner found Mendy with five minutes to go. – Guardian

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