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The End of an Era
Ajax vs. Real Madrid Champions League Matchday 3/5 Leg 2/2
Real Madrid - 1 Ajax - 4 (Aggregate 3-5)*
*Previous Leg 2/13
Real Madrid - 2 Ajax -1 FT
Hello there! As you may know, Ajax successfully, and for the first time in club history, has knocked out Real Madrid in a Champions League round of 16.
Undoubtedly, this was a huge achievement for the Ajax side. They have not had nearly as much international attention as the likes of their competitors in the Champions league - Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Juventus, to name a few. You may be wondering, where did Real Madrid go wrong? How could a side that has won the cup numerous times in the past and was projected to win again lose it all? In this tactical breakdown, I will be walking through how Ajax pieced apart the Madrid side and sent them through the woodchipper. Let's continue, shall we?
Real Madrid starting XI: Courtois; Carvajal, Nacho, Varane, Reguilon; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Vazquez, Vinicius, Benzema.
Substitutes: Navas, Vallejo, Bale, Marcelo, Valverde, Asensio, Ceballos.
Ajax starting XI: Onana; Tagliafico, Blind, De Ligt, Mazraoui; De Jong, Van de Beek, Ziyech; Neres, Schone, Tadic.
Substitutes: Veltman, Sinkgraven, Huntelaar, Labyad, Dolberg, Varela, Dani De Wit.
Looking at the Madrid side, Solari, Real Madrid manager, has chosen to leave Gareth Bale out of the starting lineup. Considering Bale’s whopping transfer fee of $100,000,000, many Real Madrid fans have expressed their discontent with Solari’s game day decisions. He has had a troubled past with Bale. This was not the first time Bale has been snubbed out of the starting XI in a high risk/high reward game. On the other hand, Ajax decided to line up the way they had in numerous games in the past. Although somewhat unknown on the international stage, their players are silent world-beaters and can make magic happen in the blink of an eye. Their potential combined with the World-Class Erik Ten Hag (Ajax manager) leading the youngsters through his incorporation of total-football (no set position football) could have been what dismembered this Real Madrid side. However, there is more than what meets the eye.
Real Madrid had been (and still is) suffering without the presence of their superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Ever since his exit to the Italian team, Juventus, they have been lacking the oomph they previously showed in past cup competitions, and in La Liga. It is important to remember that the majority of the past successes that Real Madrid had were dependant on Ronaldo. He is not your ordinary player. With Ronaldo Real Madrid had a record-breaking 70% win ratio across all Champions League competitions, which comprise of the most elite team across Europe. He is a gamechanger. If he is not on, his team loses. If he is on, they win, and that's that. Although Real Madrid held their own without him, they were not the same on this day and lacked confidence entering this game.
In the early minutes, Modric and Kroos, the veteran Madrid midfielders, seemed to have a grasp on the game. The ball was dished back and forth very fluidly and chances were being created in the final third. Modric’s brilliant expertise in finding holes in the defense shined throughout the first half. However, Madrid striker Benzema was off his game, which meant that chances were not being finished. As the game moved on, possession slowly switched in favor of the Ajax side. Realizing that Modric was trying to streak balls through the middle, they quickly compacted their shape, resulting in a shutdown of the Madrid offense. Ajax then used this momentum to quickly counter-attack, and they did successfully. Hakim Ziyech effortlessly caressed the ball into the side netting to grant Ajax the 1-0 lead. No one would have expected them to leave the first mark.
Many goals quickly followed. Real Madrid was shocked, and their play instantly decreased when the likes of Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez, their young gun wingers, got injured. Bale and Asensio were quickly brought on by Solari, but could not seem to fit into the rhythm of the Real Madrid squad. When the ball arrived at their feet, there was little movement and slow thinking which led to easy chances being given away to the young Ajax defense. It was evident why they were placed on the bench in the first place, and their mishaps eventually led them to concede two quick goals championed by Roberto Neres and Dusan Tadic. At this point, Solari was barking orders to the sideline, scolding them for their mistakes. By the looks of the morale of the Madrid squad, it seemed as the game was already over, and little hope was left in their team. Real Madrid, pushing one last ditch effort, quickly scrambled forward and pieced apart the Ajax defense. Asensio, against all odds, miraculously found the back of the net with a bouncing ball that slammed the post and rolled in. Desperate for time, Asensio grabbed the ball out of the net and placed it on the center half line so Ajax could start right away. Ajax, then regaining possession, started to keep the ball away from Real Madrid, safely playing it through their midfield and central defenders. Real Madrid caught themselves disorganized and chasing the ball to no avail. Unsurprisingly, the Ajax keep away tactic angered the Madrid players, and they were quick to foul the Ajax players in the final minutes of the game, which eventually led Real Madrid to give up a free kick opportunity. Huntelaar, who came on as a striker substitute for Ajax, lined up his sights for the goal and then finished his shot perfectly. Actually, please look this goal up online. It was beautiful.
At this point, Madrid had given up completely. Players sulked back to their positions, and the final whistle was blown. Solari held his head in his hands, and Real Madrid players collapsed onto the ground. Madrid fans showed their discontent with the game and threw trash and food at the players. On the other hand, the Ajax fan section roared with delight as fans and players alike celebrated their Champions League advance with songs and dance. This game was said by many to be the “end of an era.” The first Champions League exit by Real Madrid since the Ronaldo golden age. Will Real Madrid ever be the same? One can only hope that they regain their old form in the coming cup competitions.