Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini brushed aside talk of injuries at Real Madrid, insisting instead that the record Champions League winners “transform” on the elite European competition’s stage.
The Italian club, who have never won a title apart from the Coppa Italia nearly six decades ago, are playing their biggest match against the 13-times European champions in Wednesday’s last 16, first leg tie.
“Real Madrid transform in the Champions League compared to the league, the match against Inter Milan was a game of great quality and personality,” said Gasperini on Tuesday of the Spanish champions’ group wins over Antonio Conte’s Italian league leaders.
Real have injury worries with French striker Karim Benzema in doubt with Eden Hazard, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo and Eder Militao among the players out.
“I don’t believe much in these absences,” continued Gasperini.
“They take away important players and talent, but it seems to me that the Real Madrid team has been able to become more humble and in fact have risen a lot in the league table.
“I’m convinced we’ll find a team that is even more focused and determined.”
Gasperini said he would rather face Zinedine Zidane as a coach than a player.
“If he were to play, I would be very worried. Luckily he will remain on the bench,” said 63-year-old Gasperini of the former Juventus and Real Madrid player.
Gasperini recalled that when he coached the Juventus youth team he often went to watch Zidane, 48, training with the senior side.
“He was an absolutely top class player for whom I find no comparison. Then as a coach he continued to win, right from the start, it means he has a DNA of football.”
For Gasperini the important thing is to remain in the match going into the second leg in Madrid on March 16.
“Qualification will be decided there, tomorrow is only the first half of the match,” he added.
At his side in Tuesday’s press conference, in-form Colombian forward Luis Muriel was relishing taking on Real Madrid again after a disappointing 18 months at Spanish club Sevilla.
“Playing against Real Madrid is always prestigious. With Sevilla we won 3-2 at home playing a great game,” said the 29-year-old.
“Real don’t stop being a great team even if they have many injuries,” added Muriel, who has scored 17 goals so far including two in the Champions League group stages.
“The history of Real is clear, when they don’t play well in the league then they reach the Champions League and pull the rabbit out of the hat.”