Zinedine Zidane accepted injury-hit Real Madrid did not do themselves justice against 10-man Atalanta but was content to come away with a 1-0 Champions League advantage.

Atalanta midfielder Remo Freuler was sent off for a professional foul on Ferland Mendy only 17 minutes into the first leg of the round of 16 tie at Gewiss Stadium on Wednesday.

Lacklustre Madrid dominated possession but had just three shots on target in a drab encounter until Mendy scored his first European goal to win it four minutes from time.

A depleted Los Blancos side, who have the likes of Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard on a long list of absentees, lacked ideas and looked set to fire a blank prior to Mendy's sweetly struck late away goal.

Zidane knows Madrid's fifth consecutive win was not pretty, but he was relieved to take the upper hand heading into the second leg at home on March 16.

The Madrid head coach said: "We didn't play a great game tonight, but I think the most important thing is the result.

"In the end, scoring is what is important to us. We still have to play the second leg, but it's a good result."

The former France midfielder added: "We played against a very physically strong team. Defensively they were good and it's a good result.

"There are many casualties, but we continue with what we are doing well. The players who are here are committed."

Zidane praised Isco, who made only his fifth start of the season - and his first in the Champions League - in a more advanced role with Benzema still sidelined.

"It has been a long time since he played so many minutes and he has done very well in a position that is not his," said Zidane.

"He has played a great game, we know what he can give us and he has done very well. When he plays he gives everything on the field. It's a victory and he's done a great job for over an hour."

Ferland Mendy scored his first European goal four minutes from time as Real Madrid beat 10-man Atalanta 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie.

A well organised Atalanta looked set to hold on for a draw in a drab encounter at Gewiss Stadium on Wednesday despite Remo Freuler's red card for a professional foul on Mendy after 17 minutes.

Mendy's fine finish late on made it advantage to the injury-hit LaLiga champions ahead of the second leg at Santiago Bernabeu on March 16.

Los Blancos had looked devoid of ideas and could only muster four shots on target, but Mendy stunned the Serie A side in the closing stages.

Atalanta's players crumpled to the turf dejected, crestfallen and beaten.

Gian Piero Gasperini's side were a had been half a minute, plus stoppage time, away from a place in the Champions League semi-finals before late goals by Marquinhos and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting saw Paris Saint-Germain break their hearts in Lisbon.

It concluded a season of unlikely triumph surrounded by crushing tragedy for the club and their city of Bergamo.

As they prepare to host Real Madrid on Wednesday, memories of their previous Champions League home game remain vivid, yet feel like they are from another time altogether.

'Game zero'

On February 19 last year, around 40,000 Atalanta fans – a shade under a third of Bergamo's population – packed themselves into coaches and train carriages and headed to Milan.

San Siro was hosting La Dea's European home games as the Gewis Stadium underwent renovation. Two-time finalists Valencia were opponents who soon discovered such pedigree counted for nothing.

Gasperini's men scythed through Los Che irresistibly, chalking up a riotous 4-1 win amid scenes of delirium in the stands.

On February 20, Bergamo's mayor Giorgio Gori learnt of the first reported case of COVID-19 in a nearby town. As the early weeks of the pandemic unfolded, his city was ravaged. By the beginning of April there had been 2,245 declared deaths, with local newspaper Eco di Bergamo estimating the figure to be closer to 4,500 over the course of March.

Other factors, such as an outbreak in a local hospital, played a part in Bergamo's devastating collective tale, but Atalanta's thrashing of Valencia being alternatively described as "game zero" and a "biological bomb" cast a shadow over one of the finest night's in the club's history.

Yet, when games returned in empty stadiums, Atalanta motored on with an outside bid for the Scudetto. They led twice against eventual champions Juventus before two Cristiano Ronaldo penalties pegged them back to a 2-2 draw.

From that point, they won only three of the final six games of a relentless Serie A schedule, with PSG then benefitting from being taken deep by a team running on empty.

The plan was to keep the side together and challenge again this time around – something that has been accomplished despite one notable exception.

No Papu, no party?

If one player embodied both the swashbuckling brilliance of Gasperini's Atalanta and the close bond between club and city that only became stronger during the pandemic, it was Papu Gomez.

Signed to a squad battling relegation in 2014, the Argentinian playmaker transformed the club in tandem with Gasperini as their captain and creative inspiration.

Last season, as they scaled new heights, he created an astonishing 120 chances across all competitions. Among players from Europe's top five leagues, that placed Gomez joint fifth and a place ahead of compatriot Lionel Messi (116).

In an interview with El Pais, the 33-year-old revealed an unusual secret to his craft. He takes his positional cue on the field from the referee because the official is always in space.

Such maverick, intuitive quirks made Gomez the often unplayable jewel at the centre of Gasperini's sparkling, shifting attack. Both men are heroes to the extent they have been granted the freedom of Bergamo.

Gomez was majestic in the 2-0 group-stage win at Liverpool but only played four more times for Atalanta as the love story came to an abrupt end.

During a 1-1 draw against Midtjylland – Atalanta enter the Madrid game still seeking a first Champions League win at their own ground – Gomez and Gasperini became engaged in a tactical dispute that resulted in the skipper being substituted at half-time.

From that point he was used only when absolutely necessary against the very best, completing 90 minutes as La Dea sealed qualification at Ajax's expense with a 1-0 win in Amsterdam, before coming off the bench to help claim a 1-1 draw at Juventus.

In the transfer window, he was sold to Sevilla. Champions League money and a windfall in the region of €85million from the sales of Dejan Kulusevski and Amad Diallo mean Atalanta do not have to seek buyers. Gomez and Gasperini's relationship was one simply deemed beyond salvaging.

If, at that moment, it felt fair to predict the end of the fairy story of a club punching hugely above its weight to gate crash Europe's elite, two prolific strikers had other ideas.

Colombian double shot

Following a senior international breakthrough with Italy this season, Matteo Pessina has generally taken Gomez's place in Gasperini's 3-4-1-2, although 24 chances created in as many appearances shows a significant shortfall on his former team-mate's astonishing numbers.

That is not to say Pessina, with his astutely timed runs to combined with the forwards, does not contribute strongly, but Atalanta have had to find other ways through.

In 16 games since Gomez last featured in the Juve draw, they have lost once, beating Roma 4-1, Sassuolo 5-1, Milan 3-0 and, last weekend, Napoli 4-2. They also saw off Gennaro Gattuso's side to reach the Coppa Italia final.

The common theme in those heavy wins was Colombia strikers Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel getting on the scoresheet.

Despite starting just eight Serie A matches this season, Muriel has 14 top-flight goals. He is a super-sub beyond superlatives.

His minutes-per-goal ratio of 73.1 is the best for players in Europe's top leagues across all competitions. His 17th of the campaign against Napoli last time out meant he began this week ahead of Erling Haaland (78.9) and Robert Lewandowski (81.9).

Gasperini has started his strike duo together more frequently over recent weeks, perhaps anticipating more consistent returns than those promised by the exquisite but mercurial Josip Illicic, but their starter-substitute double act has often proved impossible for defences to combat.

Zapata is not enjoying his best season in front of goal. Like Lewandowski, he has missed 22 of what Opta terms "big chances" but has only netted on nine such occasions to the Poland superstar's 23.

Nevertheless, he has still weighed in with 13 goals overall and always serves the purpose of extending centre-backs to their physical and technical limits before a forebodingly fresh Muriel comes on to make hay.

His electrifying pace is a nightmare for tiring defences, as evidenced by seven goals from his own carries. Only Tottenham's Son Heung-min (nine) boasts more in the big five leagues, while Muriel has laid on three further goals in similar fashion.

Going to the dentist

Muriel and Zapata are simultaneously part of and beneficiaries of a tireless team effort that further explains Atalanta's success.

After his side's 1-1 draw at San Siro in last season's Champions League, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said playing Gasperini's team was "like going to the dentist".

It was a reference to the pressing game that can feel like an invasive root canal procedure for opponents.

In Europe's top five leagues, only Bayern Munich (278) had made more high turnovers than Atalanta's 259, with La Dea turning those into 39 shots and five goals (fourth and joint fifth best, respectively).

All teams have had to make some allowance for the fatigue of a compressed season and Atalanta's approach is not quite as ravenous as it was. They allow opponents an average of 10.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA), down from 9.3 last season – which was the best in Italy and third in Europe.

Even so, for high turnovers, high turnovers ending in shots and pressed sequences they lead the way in Serie A. There promises to be little respite for an injury-hit Madrid.

They also have the highest defensive line in Italy, with Opta data showing Atalanta's attacks start on average 45 metres from their own goal – a figure in line with Bayern, Liverpool and City.

This does mean a defence susceptible to collapse on occasions. This season's wins over Napoli and Liverpool avenged 4-1 and 5-0 losses, while a 3-3 draw from 3-0 up against Torino earlier this month put any lingering Scudetto hopes in perspective.

Still, the role of Atalanta's midfield driving force Remo Freuler should not be underestimated when it comes to filling in those shaky foundations.

The Switzerland international was absent for the Napoli and Torino setbacks. Indeed, Atalanta's record without Freuler on the field reads drawn two and lost two in 2020-21, set against a 62 per cent win rate when he features.

Freuler, Zapata and Muriel are all set to be key against Madrid, who are trying to avoid a third consecutive last-16 exit.

So, what are the chances of an upset?

"With all the respect in the world, Atalanta are a wonderful team playing very offensive football," former Madrid captain Fernando Hierro told AS.

"But in our time, the Italian clubs we met were of a different calibre. That's why Madrid must now have faith in their abilities because Atalanta are not a team to be intimidated by."

Perhaps not. But after weathering life at the epicentre of Europe's coronavirus crisis, brushing off the bitterest of Champions League defeats and marching on despite unexpectedly losing their best player, it feels fair to wonder why on earth Atalanta would be intimidated by Real Madrid.

The Champions League's round-of-16 first legs conclude on Wednesday with the competition's most decorated club in action.

Real Madrid, who have been crowned champions of Europe 13 times, face an eye-catching Atalanta side in Italy.

With their LaLiga title hopes boosted by rivals Atletico Madrid's recent blip, Zinedine Zidane's men go into the match on a four-game winning streak.

That pales next to Manchester City's stunning 18-game winning run, with Pep Guardiola's charges facing a trip to Borussia Monchengladbach.

Using Opta data, we take a closer look at both matches.

Atalanta v Real Madrid: Another Italian job for Los Blancos?

Real Madrid head to Atalanta with fond memories of recent trips to Italy, having won each of their last five Champions League games in the country by an aggregate score of 12-1.

This will be the first meeting between the two teams and Madrid represent only the second Spanish side Atalanta have faced in European competition, having beaten Valencia 8-4 on aggregate in last season's round of 16.

Madrid are the most seasoned of campaigners in this competition, having now reached the knockout stages for a record 24th consecutive edition

Atalanta are at the opposite end of the scale, featuring for just the second time, though they are the first team since Sevilla (in 2007-08 and 2009-10) to reach the knockout stages in each of their first two tournament appearances.

Gian Piero Gasperini's men will need to shake off their sluggish form at the Stadio de Bergamo, with Atalanta the only side still in the competition yet to win a Champions League home game this season.

Madrid boss Zidane has an outstanding record to protect, having prevailed in 12 of his 13 Champions League knockout ties – the only exception coming against Guardiola's City in last season's round of 16.

Borussia Monchengladbach v Manchester City: We meet again...

Borussia Monchengladbach and Manchester City are familiar foes, with this set to be their seventh meeting.

For both clubs, that represents the most matches against a single opponent in European competition.

The head-to-head record weighs heavily in City's favour, with the Premier League club unbeaten in four Champions League fixtures, winning three.

Guardiola's side should also be feeling increasingly comfortable in the knockout stage, with this their eighth consecutive appearance. That is the best ongoing run for an English club.

Gladbach are in less well-known territory, having gone 43 years without competing in the concluding stages of Europe's elite competition, that last foray ending in a 4-2 loss against Liverpool in the semi-finals of the 1977-78 European Cup. 

The Germans have won only two of their nine home games in the Champions League (D4 L3), but they have scored in every one of those outings.

That record will come under threat against a City side who conceded just one goal in the group stage.

What does the future hold for Andre Silva?

Silva has scored 18 Bundesliga goals this season, second only to Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski.

He could find himself at Manchester United if Eintracht Frankfurt reportedly pursue a permanent deal for Luka Jovic.

 

TOP STORY – SILVA BOUND FOR MANCHESTER?

Manchester United could be offered the chance to sign Eintracht Frankfurt star Andre Silva if Edinson Cavani leaves Old Trafford, according to The Sun.

Silva is taking the Bundesliga by storm this season, but Eintracht are reportedly looking to raise funds to re-sign Luka Jovic – who is currently on loan in Frankfurt – permanently from Real Madrid.

Portugal international Silva could become available if veteran forward Cavani departs after the former Paris Saint-Germain star arrived on a one-year deal at the start of the season.

 

ROUND-UP

- Eurosport claims Chelsea are growing increasingly confident of winning the race to sign Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland. The Norway international forward has been linked with Madrid, BarcelonaManchester City, Liverpool and United, as well as Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.

Everton have joined United and Bayern Munich in trying to sign Norwich City full-back Max Aarons, reports Fabrizio Romano.

Tottenham will target Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope if PSG make a move for Hugo Lloris, says the Daily Mail.

- The Sun claims United veteran Juan Mata is being tracked by Serie A trio, Juventus, Inter and Roma.

Zinedine Zidane has warned Real Madrid that Atalanta could stun them like Ajax did two seasons ago in the Champions League.

Madrid take on the Serie A side in Bergamo on Wednesday, aiming to progress from the last 16 for the first time in three seasons.

Manchester City handed Zidane his first knockout tie loss as Madrid boss in the Champions League last term, while Ajax romped to a 4-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2019 when Santiago Solari was at the helm.

Atalanta's bold and aggressive attacking play has led to parallels being drawn between Gian Piero Gasperini's side and Ajax – something Zidane addressed at his pre-match news conference.

"They can be [like Ajax]. They're a very attacking team, a team who we know, offensively, are very good," he said.

"They have a lot of players going forward. As a whole, as a team, they're very strong physically.

"I don't really like to compare teams - Atalanta are Atalanta, a specific team with their own style - but I can say tomorrow is going to be a good game of football between Atalanta and Real Madrid."

Indeed, Zidane's main concern will be the starting XI he draws from an injury-ravaged squad.

Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard head the list of absentees, while five players in their 19-man travelling party have not started a competitive game this season.

"We knew from the start of the season this was going to be a very difficult season - for every team, not just for us," Zidane said.

"We just have to concentrate on our own play, on who we are, on what we have been doing lately and nothing more than that. We've prepared the game very well.

"With the difficulties we are going to have, because we're facing a very good side, we will just try to win the game, as always."

He added: "You're telling me about these injuries, but we still have a lot of good players, the players that are here.

"We always step onto the pitch and try to win the game. We never go out to draw. We're never going to be happy with a draw."

Toni Kroos was not entertaining transfer speculation ahead of Real Madrid's Champions League trip to Atalanta, claiming he would rather pass to injured team-mate Karim Benzema than Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland.

Mbappe and Haaland were outstanding as Europe's premier club competition returned last week.

Paris Saint-Germain striker Mbappe became just the second player ever to score a Champions League hat-trick away to Barcelona, while Haaland netted twice for Borussia Dortmund to swell his tally in the competition to 18 goals in 13 games.

The pair, aged 22 and 20 respectively, have predictably dominated discussion since then, with Europe's leading coaches asked about the possibility of signing either Mbappe or Haaland.

But Kroos was reluctant to weigh in, pointing out Madrid would not be able to call on the duo against Atalanta.

Asked who he would bring to the Santiago Bernabeu, the midfielder replied: "Good question. It's true: they're both very good at what they do.

"Those players would help any team - that's normal with the quality they have. The problem is that tomorrow neither of them are going to help us.

"We're just focusing on tomorrow's game. It doesn't help me if one or the other comes, that's not what we're thinking about at the moment.

"We're just going to try to win tomorrow with the players we have now. The rest is a question for the president."

Pressed further on which player he would rather create chances for, Kroos said simply: "Benzema."

Benzema has 17 goals in all competitions this season, the most of any Madrid player but 10 shy of Haaland and four fewer than Mbappe.

Among players in Europe's 'top five' leagues with 15 goals or more, only Marcus Rashford (one every 161 minutes), Son Heung-min (every 155 minutes) and Lautaro Martinez (every 151 minutes) have scored at a slower rate than Benzema (every 140 minutes).

Haaland nets every 79 minutes, second only to Luis Muriel (every 73 minutes), a Madrid opponent this week with Atalanta.

Benzema remains out of action with a knock as Madrid head to Bergamo with a threadbare squad.

Zinedine Zidane was able to name just 19 players to his travelling party, including five - in Diego Altube, Miguel Gutierrez, Sergio Arribas, Antonio Blanco and Hugo Duro - who are yet to start a match this season in all competitions.

Due to Benzema's absence, holding midfielder Casemiro is the most prolific player in the group, having scored six times this term.

"We have to do everything together," Kroos said. "We are missing players, important players, and not just one, a lot of them.

"We have to do everything together. Everyone that's here has to do a little bit extra. If we do that, we can do great things together, as we've seen in the last games."

Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Manchester City, Chelsea and Juventus.

Europe's elite are lining up to sign Erling Haaland, but who will he join?

Whoever it is, Haaland is set to command a mammoth contract.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND ASKING FOR LUCRATIVE DEAL

Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland wants a contract in the region of £78million (€90m) as speculation intensifies over his future, according to the Daily Star.

Haaland is a player in demand following his exploits for Bundesliga side Dortmund, linked with the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Manchester City, Chelsea and Juventus.

The report claims Haaland wants a five-year deal worth around £300,000 (€346,000) per week.

 

ROUND-UP

- Should Kylian Mbappe leave for Madrid, Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain want to replace him with Tottenham star Harry Kane, claims the Mirror.

- Bild says Chelsea, Liverpool and United are interested in signing RB Leipzig defender Ibrahima Konate. His centre-back partner Dayot Upamecano is set to join Bayern Munich at the end of the season, having been linked with the Premier League's elite.

Liverpool are preparing a £40m bid for Brighton and Hove Albion defender Ben White, reports Football Insider. Jurgen Klopp is desperate to bolster his injury-hit defence amid a difficult 2020-21 campaign.

- The Daily Mail says United are considering a move for Everton youngster Jarrad Branthwaite. The 18-year-old defender has impressed since joining the Toffees.

Leipzig lead the race to sign Ajax sensation Brian Brobbey, according to Diario AS. United, Milan and Bayern have also been linked.

Milan and Inter target Odilon Kossounou – who plays for Club Brugge - is also wanted by Premier League duo Arsenal and Wolves, claims The Sun.

- Calciomercato reports Juventus are eyeing Leicester City winger Timothy Castagne, who arrived from Atalanta at the start of the season.

Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane will not risk playing Karim Benzema against Atalanta if the striker is not fully fit.

Benzema missed Madrid's narrow 1-0 win over Real Valladolid in LaLiga on Saturday due to an unspecified knock.

Los Blancos struggled in the absence of their leading scorer as they managed just two shots on target at Estadio Jose Zorrilla.

However, Zidane will only name Benzema in his travelling party for Wednesday's Champions League last-16 first leg with Atalanta if he can first prove his fitness.

"We will see tomorrow," Zidane said. "I can't tell you right now. We are not going to risk him. If he's not ready, he won't be used."

Benzema was one of nine first-team players missing for Madrid against Valladolid, with the likes of Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal and Eden Hazard also nursing injuries.

But Zidane is unsure how many – if any – of his walking wounded have any chance of returning for the trip to Bergamo.

"The situation is what it is," he said. "There are many casualties. I hope to recover players, but I don't know if that will be next week.

"At the moment there are many casualties, but the players we have are committed and we have to continue with them. It's complicated, but you have to continue."

Despite the growing list of injuries, Madrid beat Valladolid thanks to Casemiro's second-half header to make it four LaLiga wins in a row, the last three of those victories without conceding.

Madrid are now within three points of leaders Atletico Madrid, who have dropped points in three of their last four matches but still have a game in hand to play.

Zidane's men travel to the Wanda Metropolitano on March 7 and the Frenchman wants his side to keep putting points on the board before then.

"There is no need to send a message. It is an important victory. It is the fourth victory and we have to continue our business," he said.

"You have to be happy with the game, with the result and with the clean sheet.

"We are in a good moment and have found some consistency with our results. The whole team defends very well. With the ball we can do things. 

"We arrived well and we have to rest well. We are going to prepare for the game on Wednesday in the best possible way."

Casemiro had missed two glorious headed chances before finding the back of the net with his third, which came via a superb Toni Kroos delivery from deep.

Kroos created four big opportunities in total and had both the most touches (83) and completed more passes (73) than any other player on the field.

Match-winner Casemiro was keen to share the plaudits with his team-mate, who now has five assists in his last five appearances.

"You have to be there to finish it off. But the credit goes to Toni, who always puts them well," he told Movistar. "I had three chances and I had to put away the third one.

"We still believe in the LaLiga title. All games are important. There are 42 points left. There are many points left and we believe in ourselves."

Casemiro's headed goal was his fourth of the LaLiga season - more than any other midfielder in Europe's top five leagues.

However, Madrid may well have been on the end of a shock defeat if not for Thibaut Courtois, the Belgium international making three big saves with the game still all square.

"We know that we are all important," Casemiro said. "Courtois with the stops - I'm not surprised, he always does that. 

"It's was a good goal for me to score. But we cannot speak of a single player today. This victory belongs to everyone."

Martin Odegaard has the character and intelligence to be a true leader for Arsenal, according to manager Mikel Arteta.

The 22-year-old has made four appearances since joining on loan from Real Madrid, where he struggled for starts, in the January transfer window.

He caught the eye in Thursday's 1-1 draw against Benfica in the Europa League, with no Arsenal player creating more big chances (two) than the midfielder, level with Hector Bellerin.

Odegaard also led the way for passes in the opposition half (29) and tackles (three), highlighting two different aspects to the Norway international's game.

Arteta has been impressed by what he has seen so far and has backed the loanee to grow in stature over the coming weeks.

"On the pitch he is showing a lot of character and intelligence - ingredients any leader should have," Arteta said. "He's been here a very short time but has adapted really quickly.

"He's gaining more and more respect from the players and staff. I think his weight on the team will increase week in week out."

Odegaard, who has previously spent time on loan with Heerenveen, Vitesse and Real Sociedad, is due to return to Madrid at the end of the campaign.

There has been talk of Arsenal signing the Stromsgodset player permanently, but Arteta remains unsure if Madrid will agree to a transfer.

"We've got him for a few months. We have to maximise this time with him to bring all his qualities to the team," the Spaniard said.

"At the end of the season we will see together if we can take this relationship forward. But at the moment that doesn't just depend on us."

Odegaard is in line to start Arsenal's clash against Manchester City on Sunday, with the Gunners seeking to end a seven-match Premier League losing run in this fixture.

The game will see Arteta reunite with Pep Guardiola, who he worked under as City's assistant boss for three and a half years before switching to Arsenal in December 2019.

Although Arteta acknowledged he shares many coaching similarities with Guardiola, the Arsenal boss intends to do things his own way at Emirates Stadium.

"You can share some values and ideas. The way we've been raised and educated in football is similar because we have the same background and worked together," Arteta said.

"But what do you do to make it work the way you need? You sometimes need investment, sometimes you have players who can already provide what you want. 

"You have to keep evolving and finding a way. There's not just one formula that works. If you try to do that you will fail."

Arsenal have won just three of their last 18 league games against the side starting the day in top spot, which is the position occupied by City heading into Sunday's match.

Casemiro scored the only goal as injury-hit Real Madrid earned a 1-0 win at Real Valladolid to close the gap on LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid to three points.

Atletico lost for just the second time this season in the league earlier on Saturday to open the door, and their city rivals took full advantage at Estadio Jose Zorrilla with a fourth win in a row, the last three of those secured without conceding.

Zinedine Zidane's side failed to register a single shot on target in the first half of a league game for the second time this season and required Thibaut Courtois to produce three big saves to keep them level.

But Madrid, who were without striker Karim Benzema and eight other first-team players, made the breakthrough thanks to Casemiro's 65th-minute header and saw the game out to up the pressure on Atleti, who have a game in hand to play.

Courtois made the first of his key saves inside seven minutes to keep out Fabian Orellana's poked effort and then Saidy Janko's follow-up shot as Valladolid, also denied a strong penalty shout for Casemiro's tackle on Kike Perez, made a bright start.

Casemiro powered a free header over the crossbar from the edge of the six-yard box from Madrid's only clear-cut legitimate opportunity of a lacklustre first half, though Mariano did correctly have two goals ruled out for offside.

Lucas Vazquez fired in Madrid's first on-target attempt six minutes into the second period - a simple stop for Jordi Masip to make in the Valladolid goal - after Casemiro had guided another header off target.

The visitors would fallen behind three minutes later if not for Courtois, who saved Orellana's volley and spared the blushes of team-mate Ferland Mendy in the process - the full-back having crossed the ball straight to the opposition player.

However, it proved a case of third time lucky for Casemiro as he headed Toni Kroos' superb set-piece back across goal and away from Masip to open the scoring for the reigning champions.

Valladolid had another penalty appeal rejected, this time for Nacho Fernandez's challenge on Shon Weissman, as Madrid held on for what could yet prove to be a crucial win in the title race.

Zinedine Zidane enjoyed watching Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland in Champions League action, though he refused to be drawn over his preference amid links to Real Madrid.

Mbappe lit up the start of the knockout stages of the European competition with a hat-trick for Paris Saint-Germain against Madrid's domestic rivals Barcelona on Tuesday, helping the French club record an outstanding 4-1 triumph at Camp Nou.

Just 24 hours later, Haaland continued his astonishing scoring exploits in the Champions League, becoming the fastest player to reach 10 goals for one club as he struck twice for Borussia Dortmund in a 3-2 victory away to Sevilla in the last 16.

Both young forwards have been rumoured as transfer targets for Madrid, so it was hardly surprising they were a topic of discussion for Zidane during his pre-match media conference ahead of Saturday's LaLiga trip to Real Valladolid.

Asked for his assessment of fellow Frenchman Mbappe, he replied: "I think the performance he put in earlier this week was marvellous. 

"I loved seeing what he did because we know each other from France.

"It's very good for football, I watched the game as a fan. I had a very good time watching it. He has a lot of good movement, a lot of good play."

French media has claimed Mbappe has been offered a new long-term deal to remain at PSG. The 22-year-old's current contract runs until 2022, which is the same year Haaland can leave Dortmund for €75million (£65m), according to a reported agreement with the Bundesliga club.

Madrid head coach Zidane, however, was not interested in revealing which of the duo he ranked higher.

"Like I said, what I like is just watching football. I just like watching good football, good players on the pitch," he said. 

"Two tremendous players, for now and the future. That's it. I'm not going to say who I prefer over the other. Everyone has their opinion."

The continued rise of Mbappe and Haaland as superstars has led to suggestions they can step in and become the next great pairing, taking over from the longstanding rivalry between Madrid legend Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona captain Lionel Messi.

"They are quality players both of them, just like Messi and Cristiano," Zidane said. "Neymar, all these world class players, they're just like them.

"They're younger, they're demonstrating they are not just players for the future but players for the present."

 

Karim Benzema is out of Real Madrid's LaLiga clash at Real Valladolid and faces a race to be fit for Wednesday's Champions League tie against Atalanta.

Los Blancos' superstar striker did not train on Friday due to an unspecified knock and will not travel to the Jose Zorrilla, where Madrid are looking for a fourth straight top-flight win.

Head coach Zinedine Zidane was unsure if Benzema will return for the last-16 first-leg tie at Atalanta and said he will be re-evaluated later in the week.

"Karim won't be with us tomorrow, he has a little niggle, he has something and he won't be with us tomorrow," Zidane told a pre-match news conference. 

"We hope he's ready for Wednesday, from Sunday-Monday onwards we'll see how his problems evolve and how he's ready for Wednesday."

It is an unwelcome blow for Zidane, whose squad has already been ravaged by injury with Benzema joining Eden Hazard, Rodrygo, Federico Valverde, Alvaro Odriozola, Eder Militao, Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and captain Sergio Ramos on the sidelines.

"I think any injury we get is a hammer blow for us. But of course we know the player Karim is for us, how important he is," Zidane added. 

"But as I said before he is injured, he won't be available tomorrow and we have to do the best we can. 

"We have to think about players who are there and recover Karim as soon as possible. The same goes for all the other players."

Despite the injury woes, Madrid have performed well over the past week in LaLiga and Zidane was asked if he is confident the team can show a similarly positive attitude in Europe.

"It is what it is. Mentally we can't do anything about these injuries. We just want to avoid more injuries," he said. 

"I think everyone here is committed to doing that but so many factors go into this. It's true that lately a lot of players are injured and it doesn't help. 

"We have so many injuries, today we had another with Benzema but we just need to be patient and the players who are available we just need to give it our all, and just hope we are going to recover our players. 

"I know the players want to get back to training and on the pitch. I hope we get all our players back but it's true lately it's become a little complicated, yes."

Mauricio Pochettino believes Kylian Mbappe’s uncertain future will "be clarified soon" following reports linking the superstar striker with a move away from Paris Saint-Germain.

France international Mbappe lit up the Camp Nou with a devastating hat-trick to crush Barcelona in PSG’s 4-1 Champions League last-16 win on Tuesday.

Following his starring performance, the 22-year-old said: "It would be stupid to decide my future on a single match," sparking speculation about his long-term plans with his hometown club.

Mbappe’s contract expires in June 2022 and some of Europe’s biggest club are rumoured to be circling if the French champions cannot not lock down the World Cup winner to a new deal.

Last year’s losing Champions League finallists, PSG, are currently second in Ligue 1 and Argentine coach Pochettino believes Mbappe can achieve it all at the Parc des Princes.

"PSG can give Mbappe all the tools he needs to be happy," Pochettino told Catalunya Radio program Tot Costa.

"I think it'll be clarified soon."

Mbappe has scored 21 goals in 29 games this season, taking his tally for the club to 116 goals in his four seasons in the French capital since making the move from Monaco in August 2017.

“We have no doubt that Kylian is one of the greatest players in the world despite his youth," Pochettino said after the thumping win against the Catalans.

"He has already done extraordinary things."

Kylian Mbappe's future is in his own hands after showing the world what he is capable of while scoring a hat-trick in Paris Saint-Germain's 4-1 Champions League demolition of Barcelona.

With his contract in the French capital set to expire in June 2022, Mbappe ultimately has the choice of either signing a new deal or leaving his hometown team – and the World Cup winner has been non-committal so far.

Should the 22-year-old sensation decide to take his career abroad, there will be no shortage of suitors, with four European giants ready to swoop.

 

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL, MANCHESTER CITY, REAL MADRID, JUVENTUS EYE IN-DEMAND MBAPPE

If PSG cannot persuade Mbappe to sign a long-term extension, they will not want to lose a world-class talent without a fee, so the Ligue 1 champions have placed a €200million (£173m) tag on his head, according to Le Parisien.

Le Parisien reports the price may not deter the Frenchman's admirers, who include Premier League rivals Manchester City and LiverpoolReal Madrid and Juventus.

While those clubs may want him, it is unclear if all of them would be able to afford Mbappe, who is set to make more than €30m per year gross on his next contract. Reports claim PSG will aim to price their Champions League rivals out of a deal.

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