Even as someone who liked Ajax’s chances of upsetting Real Madrid, I found what happened Tuesday at the Santiago Bernabéu jarring.
It would not have been shocking to see a Real Madrid team that had been struggling for most of this season continue to do so against a quality opponent like Ajax. But it will be a while before anyone who watched will forget seeing the winner of four of the last five Champions League trophies look so overwhelmed and helpless at its home ground.
Any Madridistas looking to make excuses can point to a few breaks that didn’t go their way. Maybe if Raphael Varane’s fourth-minute header would have hit the back of the net – which it should have, as he was in perfect position – things would have gone differently. The first-half injuries to Vinicius and Lucas Vázquez certainly did not help the cause. Neither did the absence of suspended captain Sergio Ramos, which, it’s worth noting, was his own fault.
Ajax is Back!
For those unfamiliar, Dutch club Ajax is one of the historically great teams in European football. They have 33 Eredivisie titles and four Champions League trophies (the last being in 1995). Their player development system is legendary.
While Ajax is historically great, their return to elite status is a new development. But this result wasn’t remotely fluky, and it’s the young Dutch club – six of 11 starters Tuesday are 22 or younger – that deserves the bulk of the attention. Here are three reasons every team still alive in the UCL should fear Ajax.
1). They convert their goal-scoring opportunities, in style
Prior to Tuesday, it was fair to wonder whether the Dutch club’s 13-1 cumulative score over its previous three games was a result of weak domestic competition. We got the answer in a hurry. Each of Ajax’s four goals was a head-turner, and on the first two, the setup was just as impressive as the finish.
Dusan Tadic took advantage of Real Madrid’s carelessness in the 7th to take over possession in an advantageous position on the first goal. His patience to wait for Hakim Ziyech, and the precision on the assist, were the first signs that RM were in deep trouble. Ziyech reminded the crowd at the Bernabéu what quality finishing looks like with a perfect left-footed strike to beat keeper Thibaut Courtois.
Ajax capped the scoring with two more incredible strikes in the second half. There was nothing Courtois could do about Tadic’s blast in the 62nd. The final tally of the evening came on a stunning free kick by Lasse Schöne in the 72nd.
2). Manager Erik ten Hag’s team is deeper than advertised
There are two reasons I just went to the trouble of breaking down every goal in such a one-sided affair. First of all, it was an excuse to go back and re-watch each one a few more times.
But more importantly, it’s worth pointing out that none of those plays involved the biggest names on the Ajax roster. Stars Frenkie de Jong (joining Barcelona this summer) and Matthijs de Ligt (targeted by all the big clubs) were excellent, but their teammates stole the show with their work in the final third in a testament to the strength of the roster as a whole. We’ve known since January that de Jong’s and de Ligt’s days in Amsterdam were numbered, as those players are headed to wealthier pastures this summer. With a few more performances like Tuesday’s from Neres and Co., we may be seeing an even larger exodus than expected this offseason.
3). Can Tuesday’s effort be duplicated?
Nobody is doubting whether a performance like the one we just saw will be enough for Ajax to stand a chance in the quarterfinals. The question is whether Ajax can maintain that level of play. I, for one, believe they can, and it’s not just because of what we saw this week.
Going back to the Feb. 13 first leg against Real Madrid, the Dutch club has won four of its last five. The combined score in those matches of 18-4 (!) is staggering, no matter how you feel about their league foes or a disintegrating Real Madrid side.
Skeptics will want to know what Ajax will be able to do in (at least) two more games against Europe’s elite. We’ve now seen Ajax play 14 UCL games dating back to July, though, with the only loss the first-leg stumble against Real Madrid in February. This team played Bayern Munich to a draw twice and just knocked out the club that, no matter how flawed they’ve looked this year, has owned this tournament in recent years. Ajax has nothing to be afraid of. That’s all the more true when the other three teams that are in the final eight are ManU (which was left for dead not long ago), Porto and Tottenham.