Full back Ferland Mendy broke the deadlock with only four minutes remaining with a delightful goal from outside the area, after Real had put Atalanta under relentless pressure following Remo Freuler’s early sending off.
Atalanta defended resolutely after going down to 10 men with only 17 minutes on the clock and limited Real to only a handful of half chances for the remainder of the match.
However, Real’s dominance eventually paid off as Mendy curled home a fabulous strike to give Zinedine Zidane’s side a crucial away goal ahead of the return leg in Madrid on March 16.
Red card controversy
After a rocky start to the season, Real has found some impressive form in La Liga, losing just once in its last 14 matches to move to within three points of early runaway leader Atletico Madrid.
However, coming into this game Zidane had an injury list as long as his arm, with nine first team players — including the likes of Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Sergio Ramos and Federico Valverde — missing.
After winning the Champions League in 2018 for an unprecedented third season in a row, Real has gone out in the round of 16 in each of the past two seasons. It has been a sobering fall from grace for a club accustomed to being among the best in Europe.
Wednesday’s opposition, conversely, has very little Champions League experience to speak of; Atalanta only made its debut in European football’s top competition last season, but immediately made itself at home.
An impressive debut run, defined by thrilling football and fearlessness against far greater opposition, ended with defeat at the quarterfinal stage to eventual finalist Paris Saint-Germain.
Coming into the game, most expected a goal fest and those expectations were heightened when Atalanta midfielder Remo Freuler was sent off after only 17 minutes for a foul on Mendy.
Atalanta’s players were furious and on first viewing it appeared they were justified in their anger. However, replays showed that Freuler had denied Mendy a clear path into the penalty area, though Atalanta will still feel somewhat hard done by that it would be considered a “clear” goalscoring opportunity.
The sending certainly changed the complexion of the contest. Atalanta, understandably, sat back and entered damage limitation mode, a far cry from its usual swashbuckling style.
Real was now on the front foot and the remainder of the match played out like a training session of attack vs. defense, with Atalanta scarcely to escape its own penalty area.
Though Zidane’s side was utterly dominating possession, Atalanta’s resolute defending meant a goal felt far from inevitable. Isco, Luka Modric and Vinicius all had glimpses of goal, but failed to test Atalanta goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini.
It took until the 86th minute for Real to find the breakthrough — and it took something quite special, too. It was left back Mendy who was the unlikely hero, picking up the ball on the edge of the box and curling a brilliant strike into the far corner to give his side a narrow lead going into the second leg.
While Atalanta will no doubt be disappointed by conceding that late goal, it can find some consolation in going into the second leg with a realistic chance of progressing after playing for so long with 10 men.
Elsewhere, Manchester City got its round of 16 tie off to the best possible start with a 2-0 victory over German side Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Despite this officially being Gladbach’s home leg, the match was being played at the Puskas Arena in Budapest, Hungary, after Germany recently added Britain to its high risk list due to the new UK coronavirus variant and banned international travel into the country.
Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus gave Pep Guardiola’s side two crucial away goals ahead of the return leg in Manchester on March 16.