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.

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."

Napoli forward Victor Osimhen underwent tests in hospital on Sunday after being carried off on a stretcher following a blow to the head in the team's 4-2 Serie A loss to Atalanta.

Osimhen collided with Atalanta's Cristian Romero and fell to the ground in the closing moments of the game, with reports in Italy saying he then lost consciousness on the pitch.

Former Lille star and Nigeria international Osimhen was taken away by ambulance and was due to spend the night in a Bergamo hospital.

Napoli said only the 22-year-old had suffered "head trauma" that necessitated tests to determine whether there was any damage.

In a statement, Napoli said: "The player will remain in Bergamo until tomorrow [Monday] under the clinical observation of the [Napoli] health manager Raffaele Canonico."

Osimhen became Napoli's record signing when he arrived from Ligue 1 outfit Lille last July, joining in a €70million deal.

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."

Gennaro Gattuso came out in bullish fashion when asked about his Napoli future after his team were defeated 3-1 by Atalanta in their Coppa Italia semi-final.

Duvan Zapata was integral as Atalanta claimed a place in the Coppa final for the second time in three seasons, with the striker scoring a thunderous opener before teeing up Matteo Pessina in a blistering first-half display from Gian Piero Gasperini's side.

Hirving Lozano's goal had given Napoli a glimmer of hope early in the second half, but Zapata and Pessina combined again to seal Atalanta's progression into a final against Juventus with a 3-1 aggregate success.

With Napoli sitting in sixth in Serie A – having lost seven games – reports have emerged over recent weeks claiming Gattuso, who joined last season, is fighting to save his job.

Napoli face Juve in their next outing on Saturday and, asked if that match will prove make or break for his tenure, Gattuso insisted it was the club's hierarchy who must answer that question.

"I don't know, you have to ask the club," he said. "The captain of the ship is me, when things go badly, they are at the expense of the captain.

"I can't think of this as the penultimate or last resort, I have to work and I have to be able to trust.

"I'm a coach, it's like that. I won't be the first, nor the last, but I have the duty to try until the end."

Without first-choice centre-backs Kostas Manolas and Kalidou Koulibaly, Napoli allowed 19 attempts at their goal, with Atalanta landing seven on target.

Atalanta were worthy winners, and Gasperini had only one regret.

"It's a great satisfaction," he said. "We dedicate it to the fans.

"The regret is not living these moments with them, but reaching the final is a sign of continuity. This team are at the top. 

"We will think about the final later. For us it's already a great success. Then we will play against an extraordinary side like Juventus.

"Now we have many important games, we will host Real Madrid [in the Champions League]. That will be an event for Bergamo."

Gennaro Gattuso's Napoli future appears bleak after the Coppa Italia holders' hopes of retaining their crown were ended by a 3-1 defeat at Atalanta.

Gattuso led Napoli to their sixth Coppa Italia triumph in his first half-season at the club in 2019-20, and talks of a new deal were rife earlier this season.

Yet those discussions have made way for reports of Gattuso's imminent departure and, despite a spirited second-half showing sparked by Hirving Lozano's 53rd-minute goal, his time might be up.

Without Kostas Manolas or Kalidou Koulibaly, Napoli's defence was carved open in the first half – Duvan Zapata integral as he scored the opener and twice set up Matteo Pessina, whose double sent Atalanta into a final against last season's runners up Juventus.

After drawing 0-0 in the first leg, Atalanta threw away a three-goal lead against Torino on Saturday and might have conceded early on this time had Lorenzo Insigne directed a dipping volley on target.

But it was Atalanta who hit the front when Zapata arrowed a brilliant 10th-minute shot into the left-hand corner from 25 yards out.

Zapata turned provider six minutes later, the Colombia striker playing a crisp first-time pass into the path of Pessina to round off a slick team move.

Atalanta could have had a third prior to the break if Zapata had kept a close-range prod down.

With nothing to lose, Napoli came out rejuvenated after the break, and had their rewards when Lozano turned in at the second attempt following Pierluigi Gollini's save.

Zapata should then have restored Atalanta's two-goal lead, yet failed to keep his header on target after meeting Josip Ilicic's corner.

His profligacy may have proved costly, but Gollini made a superb stop to deny Victor Osimhen, and Pessina ultimately wrapped up the win with a deft close-range finish to book Atalanta's place in the final.

"I think I would've been the best batsman in the world if I played cricket."

Christian Vieri is regarded as one of the greatest strikers to have played football.

Once the most expensive player in the world, the former Italy international won titles with Juventus, Inter, Lazio and Torino, while he claimed numerous individual honours – the Pichichi Trophy and Serie A Footballer of the Year to go with his FIFA 100 selection and other awards.

But it could have been a lot different for the cricket-mad 47-year-old after growing up in Australia – a far cry from his birthplace in Bologna.

"My whole family is a soccer-team family," Vieri, who also played for Milan, recalled to Stats Perform News. "My father played, I played, my grandfather, my brother. So when my father at the end of his career in Bologna, they asked him if he wanted to go play in Sydney with Marconi. He said yes and the whole family moved there. He played for some time and coached there. We all went with him. 

"I think I was about four years old and I stayed 10 years there, till about 14. I grew up there. It was good. Growing up with the kids, for me it wasn't strange. Now, if you tell people, it's a bit strange that I grew up in Australia but when I was there it was normal – going to school, playing soccer, playing cricket, playing different sports. I was a big fan of cricket. Even if we were 13-14, we would go watch Australia play Test matches, ODI matches in Sydney. I'm a very big, big cricket fan."

"I just love playing," Vieri said. "I was probably playing more cricket than soccer at school. You know what we would do? The tennis ball, we would tape it up to make it go faster and swing. I think I would've been the best batsman in the world if I played cricket. I was an all-rounder. I was really good. 

"You know what happened now? Two months ago before the second coronavirus wave, I spoke to someone from the cricket association, I'm going to start playing in March, April. It's a small thing in Italy, in Milan there is a cricket team. I spoke with the Italian cricket captain. They said listen, when you want to play with us, just come. I said listen, one thing is playing with a tennis ball when you're 14, one thing is playing with professionals. I want to come three or four days, train with you guys and see how it is. 

"I just love the game. I watch all the West Indies' games – Viv Richard, Clive Lloyd, Joel Garner, all those guys. I would watch Australia but in those days, the Windies were too strong for everyone. I'm on YouTube a lot watching cricket. My wife always says 'what are you watching? what is this?', three hours a day watching games from 1984 and 1986, and she is going 'what is wrong with you, why aren't you normal?' I say to her, 'listen, I grew up there, these are the days I was there following cricket'. She takes the p*** out of me. Pakistan had Imran Khan, I know the players. England had Ian Botham. It was fun. 

"I love the game. Couple of months when it gets a bit warmer and we can start to go out a bit easier, I would like to go training with the Italian team, see how fast the ball really comes at you, with your pads and everything. I think it would be a good experience."

So, as Vieri prepares to dust off his pads and helmet in Italy, who would he compare to in the current era of cricket?

"I think Chris Gayle from West Indies. I'm a left-hander," he added. "When I used to play, I'm not a Test match guy, I want to smash the ball outside the stadium. I think I would've been good."

And if Vieri remained down under in Australia, rather than returning to Italy at the age of 14, would he have opted for cricket over a football career?

"Cricket, soccer or tennis," Vieri, who retired in 2009, responded. "I play paddle, I play tennis for 30 years. I like tennis too because it's an individual game – it only depends on you."

Vieri went on to make 49 appearances for his beloved Italy, scoring 23 goals (ninth on the all-time list) following an international career spanning eight years between 1997 and 2005.

He made two trips to the World Cup in 1998 and 2002 – his nine goals across the two major tournaments a joint national record alongside Paolo Rossi and Roberto Baggio, while he also featured at Euro 2004.

While Vieri joined forces with the likes of past greats Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Andrea Pirlo for the Azzurri, his younger brother Max followed a different path.

Max Vieri, who was part of Juve's youth team before going on to play for Napoli in a notable spell, opted to represent Australia.

A midfielder, Max earned six caps for the Socceroos, but Christian Vieri never considered wearing the green and gold.

"I had two dreams when I was in Sydney playing and I was only 12, 13, 14, so you're going to school playing soccer. That's why I left Australia when I was 14 – my two dreams were to play in Serie A and for the national team – the blue jersey," said Vieri. "I remember in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup – Paolo Rossi and all those big players – I had it stuck in my head that I wanted to become an Italian player. When I was 14, I started breaking my dad's head about going to play soccer in Italy.

"When I started playing for Marconi, I started left full-back and then after I while, I said to the coach 'put me up front' and that's it, I was scoring goals and that's how everything started. My brother wanted to play for Australia always and I just had my dream to play the World Cups with Italy."

"I think the Australian team has done well in the last 10-15 years World Cup-wise and qualifications," he added. "They've done good. Of course when I was there – the big sports were AFL, rugby league, cricket – football wasn't the main sport but I think it's getting bigger. The evolution of football around world is just so big now, so much money behind it. When I was there, we were playing soccer and it wasn't the main sport but the passion we have and the kids have, it was bigger than the other sports."

Vieri's choice to chase his dream in Italy proved a wise decision, winning the Scudetto with Juve in 1997 before joining Atletico Madrid after just one season in Turin.

An incredible return of 24 goals in as many LaLiga matches for Atletico, and 29 from 32 appearances across all competitions in 1997-98, led to head coach Radomir Antic famously saying: "Vieri dead is better than any other attacker alive".

"We had a good relationship. I won the goalscoring award. I was a bit crazy those days. I would go out a lot. He would always say don't go out too much, train," Vieri recalled. "He knew I wanted to go back to Italy after about seven, eight months. He said, 'where are you going? you are going to stay here, LaLiga is your competition. You stay here and you just train a little bit, you score 50 goals a year with a cigarette'. I said yeah but I wanna go back home. 

"I think it was the best experience in my life playing in the Spanish league. It's the best quality league. There is so much technique and the way all the teams play, they all play to win. A lot of ball possession. Those days, you had to be really good to play. I had an amazing season."

Like his time at Juve, Vieri's spell with Atletico was brief as he returned to Italy via Lazio in a €25million deal the following season.

After 14 goals in 28 appearances and a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup triumph in the Italian capital, Vieri became the most expensive player in the world when he reunited with former Juve boss Marcello Lippi at Inter, who splashed out €49m to partner the Italian with Brazilian great Ronaldo.

"The thing is that, if you play in Spain, Italy, England – they're the biggest competitions, so you can't block it out," Vieri said when asked about the pressures of being the world's most expensive player. "Automatically, from being normal to 100 times of pressure on you because 90billion Italian lire in those days, the player who cost more than anyone, every game you play you're judged… even more than before. 

"At Atletico, I was sold to Lazio – big scandal came out – then when I went to Inter for 90b [lire], the world went crazy. From Lazio, moving to Inter, going to play at San Siro, it's a heavy thing because San Siro – the biggest players in the world have played there, 85-90,000 people judging you all the time. They whistle if you don't play good. They've seen everyone. 

"When I went there, I said to myself, 'Bob, first game is at home, when I went to camp, in a month and a half, your first game is at home and whatever happens, you have to go score in that game. if you score in that game, you're gonna fly'. I trained a month and a half in camp, I wouldn't go out anywhere. First game, I scored three goals at home, 90,000 people went crazy. Took a lot of pressure off my shoulders that first game. Here they call me Mr. 90m guy, even today. It's a thing you're gonna call you that for the rest of your life."

Now, Vieri watches the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah, Romelu Lukaku, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe bang in the goals across Europe. 

How would he fare in 2020-21?

"I think it's easier to score these days because there's less marking. Before, football, first thing was not to concede, in Italy league at least," Vieri said. "It was probably the hardest league in the world in those days. All the biggest players in the world were there. We started the competition where seven teams were trying to win the league, not one or two but seven big teams with big, big players. If we would shoot twice in 90 minutes, we were happy. Those two shots, we would score one goal, we had to score once. 

"Today, the game has changed. The defenders don't mark as much, they play. They're more like midfielders, you have to play with the ball at your feet – the whole team have to attack. Now you have 15 strikers who score more than 20 goals. It's fun to watch still but changed a lot."

Popular on social media and Italian television in his post-playing days, Vieri has ventured into coaching as he works to complete his UEFA A and B license alongside the likes of former team-mates Del Piero and De Rossi.

"All of us, the former players, when we talk about things, we only miss one thing – staying together and training... having fun. The everyday stuff. The dressing rooms, we had the craziest dressing rooms, people. Taking the p*** out of everyone 24/7. 

"I speak with all my ex-team-mates. It's just fun. Now, I'm doing the coaching course… We just laugh, we have fun. We are doing UEFA A and B together. The way we talk to each other, it's just like back in the days. With a lot of former team-mates, we play paddle ball here in Milan. When we can, we hang out."

"The first thing is you need a license to coach. It's very hard, it's not easy. When you're doing two courses together because the federations asked UEFA if just the top 10 players could do it, so we're doing it," added Vieri, when asked if he was eyeing a coaching career.

"We'll see what happens. If I have a nice project, anything can happen. 1,000 of doors will open like I always say."

Atalanta were unable to make the most of their superiority as they were held to a 0-0 draw at Napoli in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final, with David Ospina keeping the visitors at bay.

Gian Piero Gasperini's men were in control for much of the game and created the best chances of the match, but they ultimately had to settle for a draw ahead of the return leg in Bergamo next week.

Luis Muriel was Atalanta's danger man, proving a real nuisance to Napoli as he offered a threat in front of goal and also proved an able creator, though Ospina in the home side's net stood firm.

Napoli might have been expected to produce an improvement after the interval but still they struggled to craft openings of their own, consigning them to an underwhelming 0-0 first-leg draw.

Although Napoli looked bright at first, Atalanta soon became the dominant force and went close to a fluke early lead when Muriel's wicked free-kick delivery from the left drew a desperate save from his compatriot Ospina in the hosts' net.

The excellent Muriel was involved again soon after as he fed Matteo Pessina into the box, but Ospina saved at his feet and Rafael Toloi hopelessly shot wide a few minutes later following a clever one-two.

Muriel then wasted a decent chance of his own late in the half, blazing over from just inside the area after cleverly evading Kalidou Koulibaly.

Ospina remained busy at the start of the second period as he first rushed out to thwart Muriel, before holding on to Joakim Maehle's excellent header from a corner just past the hour.

Napoli's midfield presence diminished considerably as they lost Diego Demme and Lorenzo Insigne in quick succession to knocks, with Atalanta's dominance increasing as a result.

But Robin Gosens missed a glorious chance as he headed wide 13 minutes from time and that proved to be their final opportunity.

 

Liverpool's need for defensive reinforcements was always likely to dominate the headlines on transfer deadline day and so it proved as the Premier League champions made two late signings.

Centre-back Ben Davies arrived from Preston North End, while Liverpool made a further addition to the heart of their backline with the loan signing of Ozan Kabak from Bundesliga strugglers Schalke until the end of the season.

Those signings came on a day that saw Joel Matip ruled out for the rest of the season with an ankle ligament injury. Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez are long-term absentees and Liverpool were forced to play Jordan Henderson and Nathaniel Phillips at centre-back in Sunday's win at West Ham.

Heading for the Anfield exit door is Takumi Minamino, the forward moving to Southampton on a six-month loan deal having only joined Liverpool last January.

It came after Southampton loaned veteran Shane Long to promotion-chasing Championship side Bournemouth.

Bournemouth also sanctioned the departure of Joshua King to Everton for a nominal fee until the end of the season.

There were outgoings at Arsenal as well, with Shkodran Mustafi signing for Schalke on a short-term deal and Joe Willock going on loan to Newcastle United, who let DeAndre Yedlin leave for Galatasaray.

Arsenal also sent Ainsley Maitland-Niles to West Brom on loan.

Turkish giants Galatasaray acquired Gedson Fernandes on a temporary deal from Benfica following an unsuccessful stint at Tottenham.

In Serie A, Parma landed Bayern Munich's teenage forward Joshua Zirkzee in a loan deal that contains the option to sign the 19-year-old permanently.

Atalanta are firmly in contention for a top-four finish in Serie A and bolstered their ranks for that push with the capture of Ukraine midfielder Viktor Kovalenko from Shakhtar Donetsk.

Roma can afford to have hopes of a title challenge and brought in teenage full-back Bryan Reynolds from MLS outfit Dallas on an initial loan deal, with an obligation to buy, to help them.

Frozen out at Juventus, midfielder Sami Khedira is back in the Bundesliga following a switch to Hertha Berlin, but one of European football's most exciting talents is heading to Italy after Udinese signed Jayden Braaf on loan from Manchester City with an option to buy.

Elsewhere, Everton defender Jonjoe Kenny joined Celtic on loan for the rest of the season, Brighton and Hove Albion signed highly rated midfielder Moises Caicedo from Independiente del Valle, West Brom loaned Okay Yokuslu from Celta Vigo and defender Teden Mengi moved from Manchester United to Wayne Rooney's Derby County on a temporary basis.

Alejandro Gomez's seven-year association with Atalanta is over after their former captain completed a move to Sevilla.

Gomez, 32, joined Atalanta from Metalist Kharkiv in 2014 and was a key factor in the club's rise from mid-table also-rans to regular top-four challengers.

He became captain in 2017 after a personal-best haul of 16 Serie A goals in 2016-17 and then skippered the club to their highest-ever top-flight finish of third in 2018-19.

They repeated the feat in 2019-20 and Gomez, whose 16 assists was the most by any player in a single Serie A season this century, was named the league's best midfielder in the end-of-season awards.

But Gomez and coach Gian Piero Gasperini reportedly fell out earlier this season, with Italian media claiming the player had refused to carry out the manager's orders in the 1-1 Champions League draw with Midtjylland.

Speculation was rife throughout December about whether the pair would be able to repair their relationship or if Gomez was on his way out, with Inter initially thought to be his likeliest of options.

But more recently Italian publications suggested Atalanta were keen to offload him to a foreign team, and Sevilla – whom Gomez had previously suggested were his favourite Spanish team – made their move.

The talented attacker, who can play on the left flank or behind the striker, signed a contract until June 2024 on Tuesday.

He is an Argentina team-mate of current Sevilla players Lucas Ocampos and Marcos Acuna, and was given his Albiceleste bow by the club's former coach Jorge Sampaoli.

Sevilla will hope Gomez can serve them as effectively he did Atalanta in the main – from the start of 2018-19 until December 16, when he last featured in Serie A for the Bergamo side, no player across Europe's big five leagues played more key passes than his 233.

Similarly, his 29 assists across the same period was bettered by only Thomas Muller (36), Lionel Messi (34) and Jadon Sancho (33). There were also only five players to create more Opta-defined "big chances" than his 40 in that time.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic feels Milan have become "fragile" and is seeking an instant response to Saturday's 3-0 thrashing against Atalanta when they take on fierce rivals Inter next.

Previously unbeaten in 27 league matches stretching back into the 2019-20 season, Milan have now lost two of their last four games - they also went down 3-1 to Juventus earlier this month. 

Goals from Cristian Romero, Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata condemned Stefano Pioli's side to their latest defeat, but they are still top at the midway point of the season as closest challengers Inter could only manage a 0-0 draw with Udinese. 

However, Ibrahimovic accepts being winter champions will count for little unless Milan regain some consistency and end their decade-long wait for Scudetto success. 

"We lost two games after more than 30 matches that we didn't lose," he told Sky Sport Italia.  

"The team is a bit fragile because when certain players are missing, we lack a bit of experience. They are replaced by young players, but this is no excuse.  

"We make many sacrifices; we work and we are first for a reason.

"But being top at this stage does not matter. We are halfway through the championship, so far we have done well but still nothing this is the most difficult period because there are so many games and now we just have to continue." 

Asked if Tuesday's Coppa Italia quarter-final with Inter has now taken on even more importance, Ibrahimovic said: "We have to redeem ourselves after this defeat.  

"We have the chance to do it in a few days and then against Inter. That will be a good match." 

Milan's club-record run of scoring in 38 successive league games was ended in Saturday's loss at San Siro, a game in which the Rossoneri managed only two shots on target. 

Ibrahimovic was unable to test Pierluigi Gollini with any of his five efforts, while his 36 touches of the ball were the fewest by any home player to take part in the entire game. 

The veteran striker, who has 12 goals in nine league outings this term, admitted afterwards that he felt isolated up front. 

"In the first half I was too alone in attack," he said. "I didn't have anyone close to support me, but it could also be because of the pressure from Atalanta that put us in trouble.  

"Today many things were missing, it was not our day. Now the important thing is to recover and think about the next match to redeem ourselves."

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