Why Ajax vs Real Madrid is the must-watch tie in the Champions League Round of 16
Image by uggboy - CC BY 2.0
The Champions League’s group stage is officially over. If you missed that, you might want to know that Manchester United is advertising for a new manager. The point here, however, is the meat of the competition awaits on the other side of the holidays. Virtually every item on the menu is tasty.
The aforementioned Manchester United, sans Jose Mourinho, go up against Thomas Tuchel's Paris Saint-Germain. Tottenham take on Borussia Dortmund; the steady hand of experience versus impetuous youth. Atletico Madrid battle Juventus in a clash between Europe’s best defensive teams. Don't overlook the tie between Liverpool and Bayern Munich, two potential title contenders. For all that, the most appetising dish on offer is Ajax v Real Madrid.
These are two of the most important clubs in European football annals. Along with Bayern, they are the only clubs to win the European Cup/Champions League at least three times on the trot. Oddly, while Los Blancos have just done so for the second time, they appear to be the team on the wane, while the Dutch giants might be waking from a long sleep.
The Amsterdamers remain second best in Eredivisie behind PSV Eindhoven but only by two points. They're also one season removed from a Europa League final. Meanwhile, despite winning a third successive Champions League in June, the Merengues are on their third manager since hoisting the trophy and are struggling to replace Cristiano Ronaldo's annual tribute of 40+ goals. Julen Lopetegui floundered as Zinedine Zidane's replacement. Santiago Solari has calmed matters but is still unsteady.
Neither side looked completely solid during the group stage. Real Madrid threw away a dead rubber to CSKA Moscow at the Bernabeu. Even when there's nothing to play for, Real is not a squad to lose 0-3. The Godzonen gave Bayern a run for their money in their group. No one should count Ajax out of this tie. Not yet.
Ajax went undefeated thanks to three wins and three draws in a group that also featured Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK Athens. At first glance, Ajax were expected to compete for the second spot with the Portuguese side. They did far more. They won both games against AEK, took four points from Benfica and drew against Bayern home and away. The group-stage finale was an instant classic. The Dutch and German masters celebrated old times, playing out a thrilling 3-3 draw that included a 95th-minute equaliser from Nicolas Tagliafico. Their never-die attitude and attractive, attack-minded football punish any side who takes them for granted.
Real Madrid do not want to test that statement. Under Santiago Solari, they remain far from the perfect side they were under Zinedine Zidane. The defeat to Cska proved that.
Most of Solari's problems lie on the defensive side. Sergio Ramos remains at a stellar level but tries and inevitably fails to do everything on his own. Marcelo has injury issues. Too often abandoned by Ramos mission to replace Ronaldo, Raphael Varane underperforms. The right-back situation remains unsolved. neither Dani Carvajal nor Alvaro Odriozola meet the desired standard.
Ajax ranked second among group-stage runners-up with 11 goals. Madrid were right there with Dortmund for the best defence in the competition until they more than doubled their concessions against CSKA. I'll keep saying it. Real Madrid look the stronger team on paper but they cannot switch off against this opportunistic Ajax side.
On the weekend, Erik ten Hag's side rang up De Graafschaap for eight goals. Hakim Ziyech had a hattrick. So did Daley Blind. Real Madrid cannot switch off. Not for a second. And neither should you when you watch this match.