Three things: Atalanta - Real Madrid, Gladbach - Man City
If you like a good defensive drill day in training, the UEFA Champions League’s Wednesday matches were just your style.
Short-handed Real Madrid needed 68 minutes to take advantage of a controversial 17th-minute red card for Atalanta, a terrific Ferland Mendy strike sealing a 1-0 win with five minutes left in Bergamo.
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The other first leg saw Borussia Monchengladbach’s bid to hit visiting Man City on the counterattack yield few chances in a 2-0 loss, the Bundesliga side putting one of just three shots on target as City won its 19th-straight in all competitions.
Three things we learned from Atalanta - Real Madrid
1. Early red card taxes match, entertainment: Only Serie A leaders Inter Milan have scored more goals than Atalanta’s 53, and the Bergamo-based team has been as fun as any to watch over the past few seasons. Real Madrid is Real Madrid, of course, authors of 42 goals in 24 league matches and added another 11 in six group stage matches. So we felt set for some open football and instead got a slog after Remo Freuler was sent off 17 minutes in for a harsh red card. VAR did not see the call of a last man back foul as a clear and obvious error -- something even Mark Clattenburg noted as harsh on the broadcast -- and Atalanta was down a man. Now throw in the hosts desire to limit Real’s away goals and might as well pull up video of a 1990s calcio affair and check the score line later.
2. Real’s injury problems on show: Sure most are pas their primes, but the list of the Real Madrid stars absent from Wednesday’s first leg includes Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Eden Hazard, Marcelo, Dani Carvajal, Rodrygo, and even Fede Valverde. The midfield was steady as usual between Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro, but the finish was nowhere to be found even up a man. Vinicius Junior was yanked after 57 minutes, while Marco Asensio and Isco combined for three shots and only one on frame. When Zinedine Zidane lifted Isco and Asensio late, it was for Hugo Duro and Sergio Arribas. The 19-year-old Arribas entered the day with 112 first-team minutes, while the 21-year-old Duro subbed in with 1,162 senior minutes under his belt, all but 24 coming on loan to Getafe.
3. Advantage Atalanta? If you told Gian Piero Gasperini he’d go down a man with 81% of the match to play and concede just two shots on target, he’d ask who was directing this fantasy film. But the Serie A hosts hung tough and kept Real from taking an away goal.
Man of the Match: Toni Kroos
Four key passes and 154 touches later, don’t blame the German for the goose egg on the scoreboard. His shot corner fittingly started the play that ended with Mendy’s goal, and Kroos completed 15-of-19 long passes.
Three things we learned from Gladbach - Man City
1. A well-oiled machine thrives at half-speed: Borussia Monchengladbach has some incredible players -- Marcus Thuram, Florian Neuhaus, Denis Zakaria... -- and a very good coach in Marco Rose, but it was going to need some big mistakes from Man City to take hold of this tie. With both teams traveling to Hungary, there was no home advantage. That said, City was a bit off from its best self and things were still fine. For example, a terrible Ramy Bensebaini giveaway sent Gabriel Jesus 1v1 with the keeper but the indecisive Brazilian allowed himself to be caught from behind. It wouldn’t happen twice, as Jesus paid the price to push home a second away goal late in the match. At times this had the feel of City’s 1-0 win over Arsenal at the weekend, one team happy to keep the scoreline in check while the other failed to finish at its usual rate.
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2. Gladbach fails in rare dangerous moments: Rose’s side was well-organized but found itself denied in its best chances. Kyle Walker made a fine tackle in the first half and also helped close the lines to through balls but Gladbach’s passing was off, too. And that’s what happened when Gladbach could’ve tied the score with Alassane Plea in space and just needing a good assist to bury an equalizer. It was too heavy and the chance was gone. Maybe on another day with a fully-fit Marcus Thuram leading the line.
3. Guardiola’s four-day master plan produces two wins: Rodri, Kyle Walker, Phil Foden, and Aymeric Laporte were rested against Arsenal, and three of the four were not just fresh but very, very good on Wednesday. Foden was the exception, merely pretty good over his 80 minutes before subbing off for Sergio Aguero (also rested on Saturday). Guardiola is in a moment where nearly every one of his risks have given reward, and giving Kevin De Bruyne more time to recover from his longest run-out in a month also bore no ill results.
Man of the Match: Bernardo Silva
The Portuguese had a goal and an assist, a great run meeting an even better ball from Joao Cancelo on the opener.