Atalanta can feel absolutely aggrieved after neutralising Real Madrid, despite a very harsh Remo Freuler red card 17 minutes in, only to lose the first leg in the final minutes.
This was only the second Champions League season for Atalanta, yet they were again in the Round of 16, having reached the quarter-finals and been minutes away from eliminating PSG in the quarter-final. Real Madrid went out at this stage in the last two campaigns and made the trip to Bergamo without Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Dani Carvajal, Eder Militao, Marcelo, Alvaro Odriozola, Federico Valverde and Rodrygo, so Isco got a rare start as a False 9.
There was a minute’s silence before kick-off and Atalanta wore black armbands for Willy Ta Bi, the youth team player who won the Primavera Scudetto in 2019 and died this week of cancer at just 21.
Atalanta had started well, with Robin Gosens only glancing his head to a Joakim Maehle cross, but the game was transformed after just 17 minutes.
Remo Freuler cut off Mendy who was running outside the penalty area, with everyone expecting a yellow card, but instead the German referee flashed a straight red. Atalanta were reduced to 10 men with an extraordinarily harsh decision, especially as Mendy seemed to be heading wide and was trying to cross rather than score.
Nacho flashed a shot across the face of goal and Casemiro was booked, meaning he will be suspended for the second leg.
Duvan Zapata limped off with a thigh problem, making way for Mario Pasalic to bolster the midfield.
Isco saw his shot deflected wide after turning in the box, then his nutmeg pass on Cristian Romero sent Vinicius through, but that effort too was deflected over.
After a good Atalanta passing move, Muriel went down in the box, but it looks as if Lucas Vazquez got there first and the referee waved play on.
Pierluigi Gollini’s first real save came on 45 minutes, using his reactions and his chest to keep out Casemiro’s header on a free kick.
After the restart, Modric’s toe-poke took a deflection off Maehle to bobble inches wide of the far post, then Vinicius saw hid attempt blocked by Gosens from close range.
Josip Ilicic replaced Muriel, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to create any counter-attacks, as Atalanta were under constant siege, but Gollini was relatively untested.
He found it easy enough on a Marco Asensio free kick, while Toni Kroos fired off target from distance. Casemiro got a telling off from the referee for diving in the box, but not yellow card, as he was already booked.
Ilicic made no contribution and didn’t hold the ball up, so was hauled off again for Ruslan Malinovskyi.
However, Real Madrid scored the only way they could against this Atalanta team, with a stunner from distance. Ferland Mendy, the man who was brought down for that red card, hit a ferocious, swerving strike from outside the area that bent around Gollini.
Atalanta 0-1 Real Madrid
Mendy 86 (RM)
Atalanta: Gollini; Toloi, Romero, Djimsiti; Maehle (Palomino 86), De Roon, Freuler, Gosens; Pessina; Muriel (Ilicic 56) (Malinovskyi 86), Duvan Zapata (Pasalic 30)
Real Madrid: Courtois; Lucas Vazquez, Varane, Nacho, Mendy; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Asensio (Arribas 76), Isco (Hugo Duro 76), Vinicius (Mariano Diaz 57)
Ref: Stieler (GER)
Sent off: Freuler 17 (A)