Jose Mourinho believes anyone wondering why it took Gareth Bale so long to hit top form for Tottenham would be better off asking Real Madrid.

Bale had a miserable start to his Tottenham return after coming back to the club on a season-long loan deal in September.

He struggled with his form and fitness, quickly falling out of favour with Mourinho.

Bale has been revitalised of late though, impressing in two Europa League games against Wolfsberger as well as Premier League clashes against West Ham and Burnley.

Mourinho recently said Bale was the happiest, fittest and most confident he has ever been at Tottenham.

The Spurs boss confirmed Bale had another good reaction to his 70-minute outing in the 4-0 win over Burnley on Sunday.

It means the Wales international is in contention to play at least some part when Spurs take on Fulham at Craven Cottage on Thursday.

"For the past two years, he had what he had in Madrid," said Mourinho. "Ask them [why it took Bale so long to find form]. 

"Maybe if they answer you, you can understand better why he took a while. 

"Maybe to be patient was the main reason for him to reach the level he showed in the last couple of weeks."

Asked if Bale would be involved in the Fulham game, he added: "I believe so. Starting or on the bench I don't know, we have to decide that.

"He is such an experienced guy so of course his opinion is very important. But he has had a good reaction [after the Burnley game], a good recovering session and he will be involved. 

"I repeat: [it could be] bench or starting, but he will be there."

Midfielder Giovani Lo Celso will not be rushed back despite returning to training.

"He is training with the team but it was a big injury," added Mourinho.

"We are not going to risk [him] yet. In fact, we don't want to risk [him at all], we want to bring him to the team and competition when there is no risk. One week, two more weeks. 

"Apart from that, everyone OK. One more training session after this but everyone OK."
 

BALE'S SWIFT IMPROVEMENT

Bale has registered four goals and three assists in his last four games for Tottenham.

In his first 16 matches since returning, he only recorded four goals and did not register a single assist.

The 31-year-old's minutes per goal involvement have impressively plummeted from 200.8 in his first 16 matches to one every 28.7 in this most recent four-match span.

Bale is having more of an active role in other areas too. His chances created per 90 minutes are up to 3.1 from just 1.1, while his shot conversion rate is 44.4 per cent, up from 10.5.

It is only a small sample size and two of the matches were against weaker opposition in Wolfsberger, but the signs are encouraging.

The amount of shots he is taking is similar (4 per game compared to 4.3 before), but notably more of Spurs' attacks are coming through Bale. 

He has accounted for 22 per cent of Spurs' shots in the last four matches, where before he was responsible for just nine per cent of their attempts in the time he was on the pitch.
 

HOW DO HIS STATS COMPARE TO REAL MADRID?

The recent burst from Bale means his statistics since returning to Spurs compare favourably to his successful Madrid tenure in a number of categories.

Again, it is worth noting his Spurs figures are from a comparatively small sample size making them more prone to fluctuations – 20 matches compared to 251 in the Spanish capital.

Bale has 11 goal involvements for Spurs (eight goals and three assists) in 1,004 minutes on the pitch, giving him an average of 91 minutes per contribution.

At Madrid, he averaged one every 111 minutes.

Bale also compares favourably when looking solely at minutes per goal (171 at Madrid v 126 at Spurs).

He did, however, win 65 per cent of the games he played in at Madrid, compared to 60 per cent since returning to Spurs, a sign of the difficult season experienced by the London club.

Could Gianluigi Donnarumma swap Milan for London?

Donnarumma's future with Serie A outfit Milan is far from certain as he prepares to become a free agent.

While Chelsea already boast Edouard Mendy and Kepa Arrizabalaga in their goalkeeping ranks, the Premier League giants are reportedly interested in Donnarumma.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA EYE DONNARUMMA

Chelsea are monitoring Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma amid his contract situation at San Siro, according to Eurosport.

Donnarumma is out of contract at season's end and while Milan have been discussing a new deal, the Italy star is yet to commit to the Serie A club.

The 22-year-old has already been linked with the likes of Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain.

 

ROUND-UP

- Diario AS reports PSG are fighting Real Madrid to sign Bayern star David Alaba. The Austria international will leave Bayern on a free transfer at season's end and while he has been tipped to join Madrid, PSG remain keen on him, along with Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.

Inter have reached a "handshake agreement" with Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, claims Sport Mediaset. The Netherlands international, whose contract expires at the end of June, has been linked to Barcelona.

- Borussia Dortmund are increasingly resigned to losing star forward Erling Haaland at the end of the season as they turn to Sevilla's Youssef En-Nesyri, says Eurosport. Haaland is one of the most sought-after players in Europe, wanted by City, United, Madrid, Barca, PSG, Chelsea, Liverpool and others.

David Beckham's Inter Miami are trying to woo Cristiano Ronaldo to MLS.

Ronaldo, 36, is contracted at Juventus until 2022, but his next move is seemingly already a discussion point.

And MLS could suit nicely if Beckham has his way.

 

TOP STORY – BECKHAM'S INTER MIAMI EYE CRISTIANO

Beckham is speaking to Ronaldo's representatives about a move to Inter Miami, according to todofichajes.com.

The Portugal international is understood to be interested by the challenge of joining the club in the United States.

The financial contract would be massive for Ronaldo but he may potentially make the move next January, lowering the transfer fee, given the MLS runs from March to December.

Lionel Messi was reportedly previously sounded out about a possible US switch.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Express are reporting that Gareth Bale's recent form upturn means Tottenham are now keen to sign him permanently, with the Welshman having joined on loan from Real Madrid. Subsequently, the funds availed from a permanent transfer could enable Madrid to enter the fray for Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe.

West Ham, Leicester City, Southampton, Brighton and Hove Albion and Aston Villa are among the list of clubs interested in Tammy Abraham if Chelsea deem him surplus to requirements, according to The Telegraph.

- The Star claims the Hammers are also keen on two other young English strikers; Arsenal's Eddie Nketiah and Brentford's Ivan Toney.

- Deportivo Alaves goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco is being pursued by Premier League pair Leeds United and Southampton, according to todofichajes.com.

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane is hopeful his leading marksman Karim Benzema will be available to return from injury in Sunday's huge LaLiga derby against leaders Atletico Madrid.

Benzema is Madrid's top-scorer this season with 17 goals in all competitions but has missed their past three games due to an unspecified knock.

The France international's finishing touch was missed in Monday's 1-1 draw with Real Sociedad, which leaves third-placed Los Blancos five points behind Atletico having played a game more.

"We hope he can be with us, but we have to wait and see because he still hasn't trained with the team," Zidane said.

"We'll assess the situation tomorrow. He's OK. Karim's injury is much better and we'll take a look at him."

In Benzema's absence, Madrid have collected two 1-0 wins plus the 1-1 draw with Sociedad, so his attacking prowess has been missed.

Highly rated 20-year-old Brazilian winger Vinicius Junior came off the bench to rescue a point for Zidane's side against Sociedad, scoring in the 89th minute for his third league goal of the campaign.

"I’m pleased he got the goal," Zidane said.

"We picked up a point and now we have to move on. It's the result of his hard work and effort. That's what we all have to keep doing."

Zidane remains bullish about Madrid's title hopes, with Atletico having stumbled in recent matches, collecting eight points from a possible 15, while they were also beaten by Chelsea in the Champions League last week.

Barcelona moved past Madrid into second with their 2-0 win at Sevilla on Saturday.

Zinedine Zidane held his hands up and accepted his half-time tinkering may have cost Real Madrid in their 1-1 draw at home to Real Sociedad on Monday. 

Madrid were the more threatening of the teams in the first half at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, with Mariano Diaz hitting the crossbar from close range in a lucky escape for the visitors. 

But, seemingly unhappy with his team's performance, Zidane altered his setup at the interval to go with a back three, only for Portu to ghost in at the back post to head in a Nacho Monreal cross in the 55th minute. 

Zidane reverted to a back four soon after and eventually Madrid got their equaliser in the 89th minute through substitute Vinicius Junior. 

But the Frenchman seemingly felt his half-time changes may have backfired. 

Speaking to reporters after the game, Zidane said: "I changed it [at half-time] because I wasn't happy with our pressing. 

"It was those 10-15 minutes and we changed it again and we were better playing a 4-3-3. Our substitutes did well after coming on." 

Zidane was then asked again if he felt he made a mistake with his initial tweaks, to which he replied: "If you've asked me, and that's now three times, then yes, maybe. 

"We had to change things because, after an hour, the team was a bit tired. Sometimes we have to change things. In the end, you try to find things to change the dynamic." 

While Vinicius' late equaliser likely prevented Madrid from suffering a massive psychological blow ahead of a potentially pivotal derby clash with Atletico Madrid at the weekend, in the grand scheme of the title race it did little to improve their standing. 

Either way, the pressure on Madrid going into the weekend is greater than if they had beaten La Real, as they stay five points behind the leaders having played a game more, yet Zidane insists Monday's result changes nothing. 

"We have to remain calm," Zidane added. "We had a good game and we had three or four chances [to score]. 

"Patience, calm and rest. We were up against a team that creates chances against you. We have to carry on. 

"It doesn't change the way we go into the derby. We have to go there to have a great game." 

Vinicius Junior salvaged a point for Real Madrid late on in Monday's 1-1 draw at home to Real Sociedad, though the result does little to alleviate the pressure ahead of this weekend's potentially vital derby clash with Atletico Madrid. 

Zinedine Zidane's men looked to be heading towards a defeat that could have delivered a devastating psychological blow ahead of arguably their biggest game of the season, but Vinicius spared them near the end. 

The hosts had the better of the first half and should have led when Mariano Diaz – again deputising for the injured Karim Benzema – inexplicably hit the frame of the goal, and La Real were emboldened by that as Portu gave them the lead with 55 minutes played. 

That looked destined to be the winner and potentially the goal that ended Madrid's dwindling title hopes, yet Vinicius got them back on level terms with a minute left, albeit they still end the matchweek a further two points adrift of leaders Atletico.

Madrid somehow failed to take the lead in the 23rd minute, as Mariano nodded Lucas Vazquez's chipped cross against the crossbar from point-blank range, with Marco Asensio hammering agonisingly wide a few seconds later. 

La Real goalkeeper Alex Remiro then proceeded to frustrate the hosts, first blocking a Ferland Mendy effort with his foot before parrying Luka Modric's attempt just before the interval. 

The champions were made to rue their profligacy early in the second period, La Real working the ball well to Nacho Monreal on the left and his inch-perfect cross was met by a wonderful Portu header that picked out the top-far corner. 

They should have made it 2-0 soon after but Alexander Isak could not reach Portu's squared pass, and Madrid subsequently wasted a glorious chance of their own – Casemiro heading off target. 

Madrid did eventually restore parity as Vinicius turned in Vazquez's low cross in the dying stages. Still, they remain five points adrift of Atletico having also played a game more. 

Zinedine Zidane insists Atletico Madrid can be caught at the top of the table, with the Real Madrid coach adamant the title is not out of reach for Los Blancos nor Barcelona.

Atletico lead the way in Spain's top flight and until recently looked to be running away with it, but their position has become a little less commanding after dropping points in three of their previous five league games.

A win at Villarreal on Sunday will put Atletico five points clear of Barca once again while still having a game in hand – Madrid, one point further back, will have also played one match more than their local rivals after Monday's visit of fifth-placed Real Sociedad.

Zidane is also seemingly not ruling out Sevilla despite the fact Julen Lopetegui's side lost 2-0 at home to Barca on Saturday, meaning they could end the weekend 10 points adrift of the summit.

While some are framing Atletico's position at the top as the most pressured, Zidane prefers to see it as Diego Simeone's men having an advantage, as the two Madrid giants prepare to tussle next weekend.

"Now the league [title race] is three, tomorrow it will be two and then four again," Zidane told reporters on Sunday." Everyone has their opinion.

"LaLiga is open to all and whoever is ahead has the advantage, but there are many points left and we are going to continue with our business.

"We do our thing. What's going to happen tonight, I don't know, and we don't even have to watch it – I will watch it as a fan.

"There are 42 points at stake and it is our objective is to add the maximum possible points."

Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard returning from injury would surely improve Madrid's fortunes, with the Frenchman last playing on February 14 and the former Chelsea star a month into his layoff with a thigh issue.

While both are getting closer to a return, Zidane still does not have a return date for either.

"Benzema and Hazard are better, but they are not ready," he said. "I cannot give a date, they will recover later than those who have already returned. I can't give an exact date."

Sergio Ramos is another player Madrid have had to cope without recently, with the captain absent since mid-January with a knee injury – not that it has stopped the centre-back dominating many of Zidane's news conferences since.

Ramos' contract is up at the end of the season and it remains to be seen if he will agree to an extension, which, to Zidane's frustration, is becoming a regular topic.

"You always ask me the same thing – he's an impressive man. I want him to get fit, but apart from that, nothing else. Tomorrow we have a game," Zidane said.

Lionel Messi is reportedly open to staying at Barcelona, but the LaLiga giants have work to do.

Messi, 33, stayed at Barca after sensationally requesting to leave ahead of this season.

But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner is out of contract at the end of the campaign, leading to more talk over his future.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI OPEN TO BARCELONA STAY

Messi is open to staying at Barcelona and is prioritising the sporting project over the economic offer, according to Marca.

The report says Barca strengthening their squad could convince Messi, who has been linked to Manchester City.

Signing City forward Sergio Aguero, Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland, Chelsea's N'Golo Kante or Liverpool's Roberto Firmino would help Barca's position in their bid to re-sign the superstar.

ROUND-UP

- With Real Madrid linked with a move for Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, such a deal could lead to questions over Eden Hazard. AS reports Mbappe joining Madrid could lead to an exit for Hazard, who has struggled with injuries since joining the LaLiga giants.

- Staying at Real Madrid and there is uncertainty over Raphael Varane's future. AS reports Madrid are prepared to listen to offers for Varane ahead of next season if they cannot agree to a new deal with the defender, who is out of contract in 2022. Manchester United have been linked with Varane, who is valued at £60.7million (€70m).

- Harry Kane has again starred for Tottenham this season. The Telegraph reports the forward, who is contracted until 2024, is set to stay at Spurs for at least another campaign.

- Amid suggestions Sevilla defender Jules Kounde is too expensive, Manchester United could look elsewhere. Eurosport reports Villarreal's Pau Torres may be a more realistic target due to his reported release clause of around £43m (€49.6m).

- Alexandre Lacazette seems set for an Arsenal exit. The Mirror reports Monaco are targeting the forward ahead of next season.

Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel has been given the all-clear to chase Erling Haaland, while Liverpool are also eyeing a forward.

Borussia Dortmund star Haaland is wanted by numerous European giants, with Manchester City among those reportedly interested.

But Chelsea are also targeting the 20-year-old forward.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA GIVEN ALL-CLEAR TO CHASE HAALAND

Chelsea boss Tuchel has been given the green light to go after Dortmund star Haaland ahead of next season, according to Bild.

Haaland has scored 27 goals in 25 games for Dortmund this season.

Chelsea spent big ahead of 2020-21, but are seemingly eager to land Haaland to strengthen further.

 

ROUND-UP

- Liverpool are apparently eyeing a forward of their own. Diario Gol reports Jurgen Klopp wants Real Madrid forward Rodrygo.

- After starring for Burnley, Nick Pope is linked with a move. LancsLive reports the Premier League club want around £50million for the goalkeeper, who is said to be a target for Tottenham.

- Manchester United continue to be linked with West Ham midfielder Declan Rice. 90min reports United are willing to offer any of Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic and Phil Jones to West Ham in their bid to land Rice.

- Staying at Manchester United and the Daily Express reports they may give up on Norwich City right-back Max Aarons due to a £35m asking price.

- With Napoli seventh in Serie A and out of the Europa League after being eliminated by Granada, the pressure is on head coach Gennaro Gattuso. But CalcioMercato reports Gattuso is safe for now despite his side's struggles.

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."

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