Full-back Ferland Mendy broke the deadlock just four minutes from time with a charming goal from outside the box, after Real put Atalanta under relentless pressure after Remo Freuler’s early dismissal.
Atalanta steadfastly defended after dropping to 10 men with just 17 minutes on the clock and limiting Real to just a handful of half chances for the rest of the game.
However, Real’s dominance finally paid off when Mendy rounded off a fabulous strike to give Zinedine Zidane’s side a crucial away goal ahead of the second leg in Madrid on March 16.
Controversy over the red card
After a difficult start to the season, Real have found impressive form in La Liga, losing just once in their last 14 appearances to drop within three points of fugitive leaders Atletico Madrid.
However, entering that game Zidane had an injury list as long as his arm, with nine first-team players – including Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Sergio Ramos and Federico Valverde – missing.
After winning the Champions League in 2018 for an unprecedented third consecutive season, Real have come out in the round of 16 in each of the past two seasons. It was a sobering tumble for a club used to being among the best in Europe.
Wednesday’s opposition, on the other hand, has very little experience in the Champions League as such; Atalanta only made their debut in Europe’s top football competition last season, but immediately made it home.
An impressive first run, characterized by thrilling football and fearlessness in the face of much greater opposition, ended in a quarter-final loss to the final runner-up Paris Saint-Germain.
As the game approached, most were expecting a goal party and those expectations were heightened when Atalanta midfielder Remo Freuler was sent off after just 17 minutes for a foul on Mendy.
Atalanta players were furious and at first glance it appeared that they were justified in their anger. However, reruns showed that Freuler denied Mendy a clear path into the penalty area, although Atalanta will still feel a bit harsh as it would be seen as a “clear” goal opportunity.
The sending has certainly changed the complexion of the competition. Atalanta, naturally, sat down and entered damage-limiting mode, a far cry from her usual style of swashbuckling.
Real were now on the front foot and the rest of the game played out as an attack-to-defense training session with Atalanta barely escaping his own penalty area.
Although Zidane’s side completely dominated possession, Atalanta’s steadfast defense meant a goal was far from inevitable. Isco, Luka Modric and Vinicius all got a glimpse of the goal, but failed to test Atalanta goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini.
It wasn’t until the 86th minute for Los Blancos to find the breakthrough – and it also took something pretty special. It was left-back Mendy who was the unlikely hero, picking up the ball from the edge of the box and looping a brilliant strike into the far corner to give his team a narrow lead heading into the second leg.
While Atalanta will no doubt be disappointed in conceding the late goal, they can find consolation in entering the second leg with a realistic chance to progress after playing for so long with 10 men.
Elsewhere, Manchester City secured their round of 16 draw with the best possible start with a 2-0 victory over German club Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Although officially Gladbach’s home game, the game was played at Puskas Arena in Budapest, Hungary, after Germany recently added Great Britain to their high-risk roster due to the new variant of the British coronavirus and has banned international travel to the country.
Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus gave Pep Guardiola’s side two crucial away goals ahead of the second leg in Manchester on March 16.