The good news for Spanish football is that not all of its four representatives in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League were defeated in the first legs. Quite how much comfort can be taken from Real Madrid’s 1-0 win against an Atalanta side that had a man sent off after 17 minutes is debatable, but Zinedine Zidane’s depleted club can regroup for the second leg and is now a firm favorite to progress to the quarterfinals.
Wednesday's game was certainly not one that will live in the glorious memory of Real Madrid. It was scratchy and disjointed, full of fouls and misplaced passes, lacking much in the way of invention or imagination. Atalanta may reflect on how resolute it was with 10 men for nearly 70 minutes, but it was sunk in the end by a 25-yard strike from Ferland Mendy, who shaped a shot just inside the post having found space after a corner was taken short.
But the issues for Spanish football remain. Last season was the first since 2007 in which none of the Champions League semifinalists were Spanish, and the trend has continued this season, with Barcelona well-beaten by Paris Saint-Germain, Sevilla losing at home to Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid going down 1-0 on Tuesday in its home leg (albeit at a neutral site) to Chelsea. Given how dominant La Liga had been—six Champions League and six Europa League titles in the previous decade—that represents a remarkable decline. Between 2010-11 and 2016-17, half of the Champions League semifinalists were Spanish.
In part, these things are self-perpetuating, and can be seen in all sorts of faltering champions. A couple of issues lead performances to dip, which leads to poor results, which in turn strips away the aura from a team or a country. Suddenly opponents are going into games against Spanish sides not looking merely to cling on, but with the expectation of success. And because Spanish sides have become used to being respected, even feared, they are not used to being attacked, and struggle to deal with it.
It’s been a recurring feature for a couple of years now how Spanish sides have struggled physically with teams from England and Germany particularly. Barcelona keeps being overrun in midfield. Madrid was badly shaken by Manchester City’s press last season. Sevilla looked petrified of Erling Haaland last week.
Real Madrid's trip to face Atalanta had looked as though it had the potential to follow a similar pattern. A raft of absences has left Madrid desperately short of options, denied, among others, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Rodrygo and Dani Carvajal. Atalanta’s hard-pressing approach, meanwhile, seemed ideally suited to exposing the same uncertainty in the face of an aggressive high line that had undone Madrid last season. (That said, the other two Italian teams at this stage of the competition, Juventus and Lazio, had lost the first legs of their ties, while Inter failed even to make it through the group stage; perhaps the failure of Italian teams simply doesn’t catch the eye in the same way these days).
But the complexion of the game was changed entirely by a refereeing decision after 17 minutes. Madrid countered slickly and Mendy was just about to burst into the box when he was tripped by Remo Freuler. It was a clumsy and cynical foul, but the red card produced by German referee Tobias Stieler was a surprise. It was hard to see how he could have deemed it the denial of a clear goalscoring opportunity.
An injury to Duvan Zapata then handed the advantage even more to Madrid—although from Atalanta’s point of view, it at least it came before Gian Piero Gasperini had had a chance to withdraw Luis Muriel, as he had been planning to after the red card. But not until the final minute of the half did Madrid create a chance of note, Casemiro getting to Toni Kroos’s free kick but diverting the ball straight at Pierluigi Gollini, who made a reflex save.
Madrid was far more dominant after halftime, and Atalanta struggled to relieve the pressure. But for a long time Madrid lacked the quality or cutting edge to open Atalanta up. It will have to be much better than this if it is to challenge a Bayern, or a PSG or a Manchester City (nowa winner of 19 straight in all competitions after a 2-0 triumph Wednesday at Borussia Monchengladbach), but it should have the opportunity to be better. Casemiro will miss the second leg through suspension, but other big names should be back and that should be enough to ensure that Spain has at least one representative in the last eight.