Real Madrid are into the last 16 of the 2020/21 Champions League and they made it courtesy of a 3-1 win over Atalanta at Valdebebas. This was a huge victory for the club and one that saw some questions answered, while several more have been generated.
1. Would Zidane repeat the back three?
Zidane went with a back three system for Saturday’s match against Elche and many of us – myself most definitely included – thought it was simply a circumstantial tactic. But, there was a chance that Zidane had been using the Elche game as a dress rehearsal for deploying this formation in this Champions League game. And that’s exactly what happened. This was the big surprise from the line-ups announcement. I think it caught so many by surprise because Zidane had previously used it against more defensive teams as a means of getting the full-backs very far forward. In other words, as an attacking tactic. In this game, though, Real Madrid had a lead and were facing a team who will always leave spaces in defence. Playing a back three instead of a back four probably wasn’t necessary, but it was ambitious. And the Champions League often rewards ambition.
2. One year on, what version of Varane would we see?
It was in this fixture last season that Raphaël Varane had his two big errors against Manchester City. Since then, he’d also had high-profile errors against Shakhtar Donetsk in the group stages of this year’s Champions League. So, how would he do in this game? Well, the three-centre-backs system meant he played in a different role to when he’d committed those previous mistakes, while he also had Sergio Ramos alongside him on this occasion. Defensively, Varane was his usual self. He anticipated passes, made clearances and wasn’t beaten. With the ball at his feet, though, Varane looked uncomfortable. The stats will say he completed 77% of his passes, but even so many of the completed ones were inaccurate balls that put teammates in difficult situations and so many of them were to Courtois. When Benzema scored, Varane was the only outfielder who didn’t join the celebratory huddle. He instead took on board instructions from Zidane. After that, there was even a brief moment when Varane switched positions in the back three with Ramos – from right to centre, with Nacho always the left centre-back.
3. Which winger or wingers would Zidane use?
With Eden Hazard out injured again, we really didn’t know which winger or wingers Real Madrid would turn to for this game. Even if Hazard hadn’t had this latest injury setback, we’d still have had this question as we wouldn’t have known if the Belgian would start. In the end, Zidane only used one winger - in addition to Lucas Vázquez - because of his system surprise and it was Vinícius, who had a classic Vini game. He produced some brilliant dribbles, provoked a penalty and produced poor finishing. But, it was effective enough. Later, Rodrygo and Marco Asensio came on too and the latter scored a goal that he really needed. Asensio has been something of a passenger of late, so a goal on a Champions League night will do his confidence the world of good.
1. How fit was Sergio Ramos?
Ramos scored his penalty in the 60th minute and then, four minutes later, he was taken off for Éder Militão in almost the same minute as when he went off against Elche on Saturday. The tie certainly wasn’t over at that point. Atalanta needed three goals to go through, but we’ve seen crazier half hours of Champions League football in recent years. So, the Ramos substitution was clearly in response to his recent injury and you have to wonder just how fit he was. If he really was 100 percent fit then there’s no way the captain is coming off in a Champions League knockout, not even for rest when there are four days until the next fixture. So, credit to Ramos for ensuring he was back in time for this game and for putting in a shift. There are many reasons why Real Madrid didn’t reach the quarter-finals in the past two seasons and a lot of it has to do with Ramos being suspended for the last 16 second legs.
2. What other tactical quirks will we see going forward?
During the three-peat, Zidane’s tactics rarely raised any eyebrows. It was almost always the 4-3-3 shape on a team sheet that wrote itself. This year, though, we’ve already had some interesting tactics over the first two matches of the knockouts. In the first leg, when admittedly there were many injury absences, we saw Isco deployed as something of a false nine. In this one, we’ve had the back three. What lies ahead then? The Champions League has changed quite a lot since Real Madrid last won it, even if that was only two years ago, and Zidane may need to produce another tactical trick from up his sleeve to win it this year. It seems we’re in for quite a ride.
3. How soon will Benzema catch Raúl?
With his goal in this game, Benzema moved on to 70 Champions League goals. He is, therefore, just one behind Raúl now – and he very nearly got his 71st with the double chance in the second half. Once he matches and overtakes the Spaniard then Benzema will be fourth on the all-time list. The top three are all still very much active as Roberto Lewandowski is currently third on 72 goals, Lionel Messi is second on 120 and Cristiano Ronaldo is on 134. It’s only a matter of time before Benzema catches Raúl and then, it’ll be fascinating to watch how his and Lewandowski’s tallies develop over the next few years. Remember, Benzema is only eight months older than the Pole, so they both still have a lot of football left.