Things to note: Michael Essien returned to the starting 11 with Sami Khedira out with a minor knock. Creative playmakers Luka Modrić and Mesut Özil were both benched and Kaká received a start. Callejon was on for Angel Di Maria.
The First Half: A Solid Performance
In spite of, on paper, a somewhat weaker line-up than usual, (without Khedira's power in the midfield or di Maria's energy on the wings) Madrid were entirely dominant from the first minute, taking many shots directly on goal and earning many corners. Michael Essien and Xabi Alonso were outstanding in the first half and Marcelo and Kaká showed very good energy; getting forward and playing dangerous passes at every opportunity. Ajax were indebted to their keeper, Vermeer, for keeping them in the game until the final few moments of the first half when Madrid's 10th shot on target, courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo, hit the back of the net after some truly stellar work by Karim Benzema on the wing.
José Mourinho said before the match that Ajax were a stronger team than last year's version, but it didn't show at all in the first half. Madrid played nearly the entire game in Ajax's half with the defensive line so far forward it sometimes hovered on the half-way mark. And for all their reputation as players who play a possession based game, Madrid easily dominated that statistic as well. There were long portions of the game when all of Ajax's players were camped in their own half, easily thwarting Kaká or Marcelo's passes into the box with blanket defending. But Ajax also suffered a serious disadvantage because of their manner of defence; with so many players cutting out and clearing those passes, Ajax usually gave up possession cheaply. This resulted in a new Madrid attack immediately after another one was thwarted.
Up front, Ajax's attack was entirely ineffective, and their inability to retain possession outside their penalty box meant that Ajax had no meaningful or particularly threatening counter-attacks. Any balls launched forward were dealt with easily and effectively by Pepe and Ramos in this first half.
A note: some minor sabotage or a prank appears to have taken place in the equipment room, with two of the game balls deflating over the course of the match.
The Second Half: One For The Highlight Reels
Karim Benzema's goal, three minutes after play commenced off an incredible team move, was easily the play of the night in any of the various fixtures played across Europe this evening. Started by Marcelo, it was finished by Benzema off a cross from Kaká - a perfect bicycle kick goal.
Ajax had started brightly, and seemed to lose confidence since they were now 2 goals down. Some comedy defending less than two minutes after Benzema’s wonder-strike allowed them to pull a goal back and make it 2-1.
Kaká, who at this point in the game was looking very much like his former, pre-injury self, sent in another perfect cross for Benzema that was headed just wide.
With an electric Angel di Maria sent on for a somewhat lacklustre Callejon, Madrid were once again to be dominant after Ajax's bright start, pinning the opposition back into their own half for large portions of the game, but there were a fair share of sloppy defensive mistakes and miscues from Iker Casillas that Ajax might have taken advantage of had their strikers been on target. Madrid were lucky, for example, that it wasn't 2-2 in the 68th minute.
But Madrid weren't done - and again, it was a peach of goal – or two. On an evening without Benzema's elegant finish for the second goal, Cristiano Ronaldo's effort for Madrid’s third would have been a candidate for play of the evening in any match in Europe. A perfect counter attack initiated by Karim Benzema ended in a stunning individual effort from him - his strike from outside the area spinning and dipping into the back of the net. And less than a minute of playing time later, he had his hat-trick - a beautiful chip into the back of the net off a perfect Sami Khedira pass.
He took home the match ball. Let’s hope it isn’t defective!