Richard Buxton: The reign of Spain falls plainly on Real Madrid
They carry the country's Champions League hopes, as the other clubs falter
Real Madrid are set to be Spain's last man standing in the Champions League.
With an unparalleled track record as its supreme ruler, they should be anyway.
But, as Barcelona prematurely shuffle to the Round of 16 exit, potentially joined by both Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, the pressure is on Zinedine Zidane's side to deliver again.
Not that their sluggish 1-0 win over Atalanta in their Round of 16, first-leg tie yesterday morning (Singapore time) bodes well for La Liga's bid to avoid a fresh continental humiliation.
Los Blancos were relative latecomers to the latter stages; only topping Group B after beginning its final match day in third place, before avoiding a last-16 meeting with Manchester City, courtesy of a comfortable home victory against Borussia Moenchengladbach.
An early red card - the 15th their continental knockout opponents have suffered - saw Real's patchwork line-up eventually eke out a narrow victory just four minutes from the end.
Contrary to the Santiago Bernabeu's popular rhetoric, this is not how Madrid win.
Zidane has fashioned an elite-level coaching career on the strengths of personnel rather than any specific philosophy.
An unprecedented injury crisis for the 13-time European champions, with nine senior players sidelined, forced him into a rare improvisation.
In lieu of Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard, the Frenchman deployed Isco as a "false No. 9".
Expecting a player with a solitary 13-minute cameo in this season's Champions League to guide Real into the last eight highlighted his manager's sheer desperation.
The playmaker provided a lifeline for Zidane's side in their previous Round of 16, first-leg encounter by scoring a reducer in a 2-1 loss to City little more than 12 months ago.
Since then, he has come to represent something of a bad omen, starting five games in all competitions and losing three of them.
An ineffectual 75-minute outing in Bergamo failed to validate claims his recent first-team exile has simply been down to hard luck.
Speculation that he could follow James Rodriguez in reuniting with Carlo Ancelotti in Everton's attack similarly proved to be unfounded during last month's transfer window.
Even the esteemed Italian coach, who often deployed him as an auxiliary striker across two years in the Bernabeu's hot seat, would have little use for Isco in this vein of form.
Ferland Mendy's drilled 86th-minute effort from a well-worked corner spared Real's blushes in a game where he became their ninth outfield player to attempt a shot.
A rare goal from the left-back could become invaluable, if it prevents the ignominy of La Liga seeing all four of its representatives crashing out of the Champions League before the quarter-final stage for the first time since the 2004/05 campaign.
Before Liverpool broke Real's run of three consecutive crowns in 2019, Spain's top three sides had also contested its previous five showpieces - some against each other.
Those days are an increasingly faded memory now that Germany, and not their Iberian counterparts, holds the balance of power within Europe's elite club competition.
So, too, is the swagger which saw Zidane heralded as one of the brightest minds in football's latest generation to successfully transition from the turf to the touchline.
Real cannot afford to take their slender margin over Atalanta for granted.
Their Serie A adversaries have already shown this term they do not accept defeat as a foregone conclusion, especially when venturing into some of the game's most revered cathedrals.
Gian Piero Gasperini's side were severely underestimated when they won at Anfield. A repeat at the Bernabeu in three weeks will be a national travesty for Spanish football.