Ajax lose to Real Madrid 1 - 2 (Ziyech; Benzema, Asensio) in the first leg of the Champions League round-of-16. Here’s our quick reaction. Still to come: Player ratings, post-game podcast, and tactical review.
There was an unbelievable intensity from Ajax to start this match — an intensity that was sustained for the entirety of the first half, and continued to cause Real Madrid problems in the second half.
In the first minute, Ajax fuelled a raucous Johan Cruijff ArenA with a high-octane press. They dispossessed Sergio Reguilon in a dangerous area within seconds, then pressed Gareth Bale deep shortly after. And their press was relentless. Minute-by-minute, Erik Ten Hag’s men won the ball high up the pitch, while everyone in Real Madrid’s backline gave the ball away prolifically.
In the ninth minute, Ajax conjured their best chance after winning the ball with their press, with Vinicius Jr there just in time to put a body and force the shot wide.
While Real Madrid struggled to find their outlets; Ajax were brilliant. In particular, Ziyech, Tadic, Neres, and Schone were constantly moving without the ball and taking players on, ensuring Solari’s men had little room to breathe.
Amid the chaos, Real Madrid had a couple promising counter-attacks, albeit laboured. Casemiro had a brilliant challenge at the top of the box in the seventh minute which led to a Bale counter-attack chance; and in a rare moment, Toni Kroos encapsulated how press-resistant he can be by dribbling through a few defenders in midfield to get the ball to Vinicius Jr, who’s shot forced a corner kick.
There wasn’t much else to be excited about. Vinicius was dangerous when he had the ball in the final third, but it wasn’t often. Benzema’s passing in Ajax’s half wasn’t good. Bale took three shots — all very tame. Reguilon had some promising sequences as a ball-carrier in transition, but his passing wasn’t good enough. Dani Carvajal read passing lanes well in the first half (four interceptions after 45 minutes), but his passing (surprise) wasn’t good. Ramos also read the game well a few times but couldn’t distribute well. Ditto Modric.
After a shocking defensive sequence where Real Madrid collapsed during a slow build-up from Ajax (on a rare instance that Vinicius didn’t track back), Courtois forced a corner. Ajax put the ball in the back of the net on the ensuing corner off a Courtois error, but the goal was disallowed for offside interference:
An historic first serious use of VAR in the @ChampionsLeague.— Jake Humphrey (@mrjakehumphrey) February 13, 2019
-We weren’t too sure what was happening as no ref mic.
-It took almost 3 minutes.
-However, a correct off-side decision.
Emotionally it feels weird...and I’m an advocate. Your thoughts?? pic.twitter.com/rCkiKIMxZL
Here’s what Real Madrid had going for them at half-time, despite the horrendous first half display: Ajax weren’t clinical in front of goal and their final pass wasn’t always great. Solari’s men allowed Ajax time on the ball to slice dangerous, vertical passes, and dealing with high-presses continues to be a problem under Santi. But Real were bailed out with inefficiency from Ten Hag’s men up front.
At half-time, per source, Solari told Vinicius “Pretend every player is Jose Gimenez”. It worked, and gave birth to Real Madrid’s opening goal:
Vinicius. Benzema. Goal.— B/R Football (@brfootball) February 13, 2019
Get used to it. pic.twitter.com/5aJ8DLwsPE
Real Madrid gained some control in the second half, and at the very least, had much better offensive sequences. There was some nice passing, particularly from Kroos and Modric who calmed things down slightly in the second frame, and between those two, and an improved Dani Carvajal and Sergio Ramos, there was some good movement, patience, and composure brewing.
But Ajax equalized through Ziyech in the 75th minute:
One turning point in this match was when Solari brought on Marco Asensio for Karim Benzema (Mariano also came in for Vinicius, so things shifted a bit). Asensio put in one of, if not his best, performance of the season. He looked to shoot on sight, worked hard to win the ball high up the pitch, and got on the end of a Dani Carvajal cross to give Real Madrid the winning goal:
This was a massive victory for Real Madrid, in a really difficult match. It wasn’t pretty, but two away goals and a win in a game like this is a pretty great result to come away with. We’ll break this down in the coming hours.