UEFA Champions League: Real Madrid squares off against Atalanta as Monchengladbach host Man City

A highly-anticipated showdown in the last 16 of the Champions League takes place on Wednesday as Atalanta FC welcomes Real Madrid to the Gewiss Stadium for the first leg.

Gian Piero Gasperini’s side finished second in Group D to book their spot in the knockout stages, while Real Madrid ultimately topped Group B after a shaky start to proceedings.

Had this fixture been played five years ago, Real Madrid would have been expected to sweep aside their Italian counterparts on their way to yet another European crown. However, Atalanta’s meteoric rise has their fanbase believing that a shot at continental glory is certainly on the cards.

La Dea’s maiden Champions League campaign last season ended with quarter-final heartbreak at the hands of beaten finalists Paris Saint-Germain, but Gasperini’s free-scoring charges have not let up this term and managed to qualify in second place from Group D – behind Liverpool, whom they memorably beat at Anfield – and above 2018-19 semi-finalists Ajax.

Atalanta has been rewarded for their efforts with one of the biggest ties in the club’s illustrious 113-year history, and the Bergamo-based outfit will welcome an injury-hit Real Madrid to Italy with a genuine belief that they can get one over the most successful team in the Champions League history.

As far as their domestic fortunes are concerned, Gasperini’s side is some way off the two title-chasing Milan clubs in Serie A, but they warmed up for this game with a thrilling 4-2 win over Napoli, with Colombian compatriots Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel both adding to their already impressive tallies for the season in that one.

The former starred in La Dea’s group stage ventures with three goals and two assists from his side’s six outings, and Atalanta has notched up at least three goals in nine of their last 11 home outings, so a ravaged Real Madrid defence could be in for a taxing evening at the Gewiss Stadium.

Real Madrid’s perennial reign of dominance in the Champions League over the past decade quickly became a thing of the past when they lost to Shakhtar Donetsk in their inaugural fixture of the tournament, and it was anyone’s game in Group B heading into the final matchday.

However, Zinedine Zidane’s men displayed their credentials with a comfortable 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach to propel themselves to the top spot in a group where Inter Milan finished rock bottom, but the 13-time European champions are certainly vulnerable this season.

Since their most recent Champions League triumph in the 2017-18 season, Real Madrid has been knocked out at this stage to Ajax and Manchester City respectively, and Zidane’s decimated team cannot afford to let a hint of complacency creep in if they are to travel home from Bergamo with a first-leg advantage.

The La Liga champions have managed to win their last four on the bounce domestically – keeping clean sheets in their last three outings – and their winner against Real Valladolid at the weekend came from an unlikely source in Casemiro, who ensured that Real would take of advantage of Atletico Madrid’s defeat to Levante and narrow the gap at the top to three points.

Wednesday’s battle represents the first-ever meeting between Atalanta and Real Madrid, and even though the visitors boast 13 Champions League titles compared to La Dea’s empty European cabinet, only a brave soul could back Zidane’s side to comfortably prevail in this fixture.

In the other fixture, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Manchester City will be facing each other for the seventh time – this is the most games for both teams against a single opponent in European competition.

Manchester City are unbeaten against Borussia Mönchengladbach in the UEFA Champions League (W3 D1). However, their only previous encounter in the knockout stages of a European competition saw Gladbach beat City 4-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals of the 1978/79 UEFA Cup.

Manchester City have reached the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League for the eighth consecutive season, the longest current run for an English club – they will be aiming to make it to the quarter-finals for the fourth straight campaign.

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Ogbonna Ugorji

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