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:
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: