Drawing Atalanta in the Champions League was one of those ties that had the potential to go horribly wrong for Real Madrid. The Italian side are a difficult team to predict – at one moment they can look like world beaters while the next they resemble a bunch of amateurs. There is very little middle ground in Atalanta’s performance, either they blow teams away or they crumble under the slightest pressure.
Fortunately for Real Madrid, Atalanta did not produce their show-stopping best in either leg, and Zinedine Zidane’s side were able to win 1-0 in Bergamo before finishing the job with a 3-1 win in Madrid. The win represented a potential stumbling block hurdled, and ultimately, Real Madrid secured their passage to the last eight with considerable ease.
Now, the team are left with the opportunity to erase the disappointments of their last two Champions League campaigns. After winning the competition three times in a row from 2016 to 2018, successive last-16 exits to Ajax and Manchester City have left the club starved of European success in the last couple of years. Now that they have made it past the round of 16, there is an opportunity to shake off those defeats and restore their supreme reputation in the Champions League.
But while Real Madrid were once the consistent Champions League outright favourites in the odds to win the competition, all the latest football betting odds suggest that there are quite a few teams in line to win the tournament before them this year. Defending champions Bayern Munich top that list, with Paris-Saint Germain, Manchester City and Liverpool all more favoured than Zidane’s side.
The reality is that this Real Madrid team is far from the colossus that claimed the European Cup in four out of five seasons between 2014 and 2018. That fearsome reputation has eroded with whimpering last-16 defeats two years running, and few teams fear Real Madrid in the way they once did.
The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo has undoubtedly contributed to this, as the Portuguese international was the spearhead of Real Madrid’s modern dominance of the Champions League. But now, their team is a humdrum mix of fading stars and young players who promise much but deliver little.
There are still legends of the game present in Real Madrid’s strongest team. The likes of Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić and Karim Benzema remain as the last bastions of the club’s Champions League glory in the 2010s, but they have found themselves bridled by the continuous demands of high-level football, and often cut frustrated figures in a team that does not boast the riches it once did.
Meanwhile, young players like Vinícius Júnior are struggling with the pressure of representing this great club, and the Brazilian has struggled to register the kind of goal tallies that will fire Real Madrid to glory. There was a great example of both Vinícius’ flair and profligacy in the second leg against Atalanta when he weaved and jinked past several players in a way that Pelé himself would be proud of before his duffed finish trundled well wide of the post.
The reality is that, ahead of the draw for the quarter-finals, few teams will really fear Real Madrid, which could never have been said in the mid-2010s when the club were sweeping up Champions League titles like there was no tomorrow. For all the prestige that accompanies the famous white shirt, it feels as though this is a Real Madrid team unsure of itself, clinging vainly to the past instead of embracing its new beginning.