Real Madrid returned to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals after a two-year absence since winning the competition.
The Spanish champions defeated Atalanta 3-1 in the last-16 second leg to advance 4-1 on aggregate. Karim Benzema had given them the lead at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano, before Sergio Ramos’ penalty and Marco Asensio canceled out Luis Muriel’s well-taken freekick late on.
Los Blancos had a serious concern prior to the match as they were without the suspended Casemiro, but the experienced heads more than made up for his absence.
Luka Modrić provided the key assist for Benzema’s opener as head coach Zinedine Zidane also marveled at Modric’s ever-green performance, declaring it was impossible to tell the midfielder is 35.
“Atalanta press a lot, all over the pitch, they don’t stop,” Modrić said after the game. “Benzema’s goal came at the right time. It gave us the confidence to keep going.
“I’m 35 but I feel like I’m only 27. I feel great. You shouldn’t look at the age, it’s all about how we perform on the pitch, regardless of age. I’m still hungry for more, to continue playing at the highest level and I feel great.
“It’s so important that we’ve advanced to the quarter-finals. The group wants to keep winning, and we’ll see how far we go.”
Real Madrid matched the Italians’ setup with their own 3-5-2 shape which became a 4-4-2 on the ball. It allowed them to be fluid and not outnumbered at the back by Atalanta’s aggressive man-marking.
Zidane added on the triumph: “The double pivot of Modric and [Toni] Kroos was phenomenal tonight.
“Modric is 35 right? But on the pitch he doesn’t show that. He’s an exceptional player.”
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It was a tactically disciplined performance as Madrid counter-pressed La Dea and Modrić capitalized on a loose pass from the goalkeeper before squaring for Benzema who scored his 70th goal in the competition.
The Croat has won La Liga twice and the Champions League four times, while also clinching the Ballon d’Or with Madrid, and his performance led by example. As he was given the license to roam forward of the midfielders and registered three tackles and five interceptions.
Modrić has been a key figure again this season, making 35 appearances in all competitions while scoring four goals and five assists despite his contract running out at the end of the season.
Another roaring Madrid performance begs the question of when these masterful performances in big games will end. Indeed, as long as this core of four-time Champions League winners remains, class will always be permanent.
Benzema and Ramos are the captains and many-a-time match-winners, however, Modrić is their biggest representation of class and age being nothing but a number.