Real Madrid ran their winning streak to five matches across all competitions with a 1-0 victory over Atalanta in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie at the Gewiss Stadium in Bergamo, Italy.
To close out January, Madrid's hopes of winning a league title seemed to be slipping away following a third defeat in four matches. They proceeded to reel off four straight wins and now sit just three points back of leaders Atletico Madrid, who have a game in hand.
With Wednesday's result, Zinedine Zidane's squad now have one foot in the Champions League quarterfinals, too, thanks to Ferland Mendy.
The Frenchman broke the deadlock in the 86th minute. Luka Modric laid the ball off outside the 18-yard box, and Mendy used his weaker right foot to curl his shot into the back of the net.
Mendy was front and center for the two biggest moments of the night.
Referee Tobias Stieler made himself a figure of controversy in the 17th minute when he sent off Atalanta midfielder Remo Freuler.
There's no question Freuler was guilty of a foul when he impeded Mendy. However, many questioned whether the contact on the Madrid left back amounted to a straight red card:
Nico Cantor @Nicocantor1
Referee Tobias Stieler interprets Remo Freuler’s tackle as a denial of a goal scoring opportunity...such a small margin. It almost seems unfair. With VAR at refs disposal, he didn’t even double check his judgement call on a monitor. An argument can be made for DOGSO, yes but...
The Spanish giants were unable to capitalize on their man advantage for the remainder of the half. Isco's free kick immediately after Freuler's exit went into the wall, and Real Madrid managed just two shots on target in the opening 45 minutes.
In the first minute of first-half stoppage time, Toni Kroos found Casemiro on the edge of the six-yard box, but Pierluigi Gollini made a great save on the Brazilian's point-blank header.
The red card, meanwhile, meant Atalanta could ill afford to throw too many men forward, and Duvan Zapata was subbed off with an injury in the 30th minute. Those two factors combined to stifle a club that has scored the second-most goals (53) in Serie A.
Because he doesn't often set his side out to defend, Gian Piero Gasperini will probably be somewhat content Atalanta surrendered only one away.
Zidane, on the other hand, will have mixed emotions. The result speaks for itself, but Madrid's inability to create much of anything in the final third prior to Mendy's goal was surprising given both their recent form and Freuler's red card.
The performance continued a collective lackluster effort from Spanish clubs in this year's knockout stages.
La Liga has four representatives still alive in the Champions League, which may not be the case for very long.
Barcelona suffered a heavy 4-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain last week, while Sevilla and Atletico Madrid trail by one goal heading into their second legs. Real Madrid at least may be able to carry the La Liga banner in the quarterfinals.
The clubs will meet again at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano in Madrid for the second leg on March 16. Before that, Atalanta face off against Sampdoria on Sunday in Serie A action. Only one point separates them from fourth-place Roma. Madrid are back in action Monday, where they'll put their winning streak on the line against Real Sociedad.