In a historic night in the Spanish capital, Ajax thrashed Real Madrid 1-4 to knock them out of the Champions League.
This is the first European tie Los Blancos have lost since the 2015 semi-finals. It’s the first time they haven’t made the quarter-finals since 2009/10 when they fell at this stage to Lyon. This was a historic hammering as Ajax came back from a 1-2 first leg deficit to win 3-5 on aggregate. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Dusan Tadic
If someone told you that before kick-off Leo Messi snuck into the Ajax dressing room and put one of those Mission Impossible masks on so he could come out onto the pitch and play as Dusan Tadic, it would be more plausible than the reality of Dusan Tadic’s performance.
Players have often come to Real Madrid and had games that lifted them well above their usual level, but Tadic was doing some madness. He laid on the first goal for Ziyech with a perfectly-weighted pass and then created the second goal with an assist of Messi-esque proportions. Running through the Madrid midfield (pirouetting around Casemiro like a ballerina) before slipping a delightful pass for Neres.
And that wasn’t the end of it, either. It could have been and no one would have complained or demanded more. But Tadic continued to play supremely, pulling out a myriad of miraculous Messi-esque passes, threading the ball between Madrid defenders to send team-mates through. And then, when Madrid were mounting a comeback, Tadic appeared to cap a stunning Ajax attack with magnificent strike, putting Ajax 0-3 up! 0-3!! Absurd.
Loser: Thibaut Courtois
Thibaut Courtois had been fighting to join Real Madrid for years now and finally got his wish in the summer. Soon after that he was named by FIFA as The Best goalkeeper. It seemed like everything was coming up Thibaut! Except he’s never ever looked comfortable playing for Madrid, especially when compared to the last time he lived in Spain’s capital and played for Atlético.
Tonight was perhaps the most humiliating thing possible. With Keylor Navas sat on the bench, a goalkeeper who has never lost a Champions League tie remember, Courtois got absolutely splattered all over the place by Ajax. Now sure, he had very little help and for most of the goals he could do very little. But when Marco Asensio had scored Madrid’s goal, giving them the faintest of hopes, Courtois made a mess of collecting Lasse Schone’s wide free-kick and the ball nestled in the back of net, condemning Los Blancos to certain defeat.
Winner: Hakim Ziyech
Hakim Ziyech’s superb strike in the first leg is what gave Ajax hope in the first place, and he followed that up by bagging a supremely well struck strike just six minutes into proceedings at the Santiago Bernabeu. It was a superb move that began with Ziyech regaining possession and feeding the ball to Tadic, he continues his run and collected the return pass to begin one of the most incredible nights in Champions League history. Hakim Ziyech knocked the first brick out of the wall; destroying a dynasty.
Loser: Toni Kroos
So much happened after the opening goal that it’s easy to forget it all stemmed from Toni Kroos being caught in possession. And it wasn’t a surprise, like, he was moving through treacle. Kroos has never been quick but lately he’s looked like Andrés Iniesta did last season. Except Kroos is 29 and Iniesta was 33.
Sure, Kroos is and has been the pass-master as Madrid dominated the competition but now that they’ve not got the good mojo they had under Zinedine Zidane it’s become all too evident that Kroos is either lazy, unfit or both. The mistake was bad, sure, but he completely and utterly failed to stamp any sort of authority on tonight’s game to make up for that error. He just drifted. In truth he looked really tired, which is odd because we all know he gets plenty of sleep!
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Barcelona paid Ajax £75m for Frenkie de Jong which was a colossal amount of money but they’ll be glad they did so because after this tie the Dutch midfielder’s price will have skyrocketed north of £100m. De Jong was simply sublime at the Bernabeu, bar one moment when he overplayed with his side 1-4 up he was absolutely flawless.
De Jong ran the show from midfield, bossing Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro with ease. He ritually humiliated The Best player in the world with some delicious twists, turns and moments of skill, He looked utterly at home dominating the Bernabeu, which probably means that he’ll fit in wonderfully at Barcelona who have just won two consecutive games in Spain’s capital themselves.
Not a bad week for Johan Cruyff’s two clubs.
Loser: Madrid’s medical staff
There are many Real Madrid losers tonight. Basically everyone involved with the club except for Marco Asensio is a loser tonight. Even Sergio Ramos who didn’t even play (him taking a booking to purposefully miss this game now looks to be the darkest comedy) is a loser. But the Real Madrid medical staff cannot escape criticism. Los Blancos have been dealing with niggling injuries all season and tonight they lost both Lucas Vázquez and Vinicius Junior too injuries in the first half and then Gareth Bale spent the last 10 minutes barely moving after picking up a knock himself. Injuries can be tricky to predict, but three in one game? Something’s rotten in Madrid.
Winner: Matthijs de Ligt
In a game where Real Madrid conceded four goals, you’d not think an Ajax defender could be a standout winner but you’d be wrong. Matthijs de Ligt was absolutely imperious at the back for the Dutch side and was a huge reason that Los Blancos only managed to score once. The Ajax captain was constantly clearing the ball, intercepting the ball, getting himself in the way.
With a summer move looming, De Ligt will have raised his price by several million Euros by showing that he can be just as dominant as any of Europe’s finest centre-backs. Barcelona have a long-standing interest and this Piqué-esque display will only confirm that he is a uniquely special defender. Juventus want him and their tradition of titanic centre-backs would be ideal for De Ligt. Hell, Manchester United could invite him to be the leader and best defender at the club despite being just 19-years-old. De Ligt will have his pick of clubs this summer because this game proved there is no opponent that can intimidate him. He can handle everything.
Loser: Florentino Perez
It’d be easy to blame Santi Solari but honestly, what was he supposed to do? He was given an impossible task to get a tune out of this old, slow, arrogant Real Madrid squad. And to his enormous credit he found a way to make Madrid bearable to watch and halfway decent as a team. It didn’t last because it couldn’t last against good sides – but Solari (whose excellent career path is now shattered) isn’t fully to blame.
The chief antagonist here for Real Madrid is Florentino Perez. The club’s president and the man who failed to invest and build the Madrid squad to help transition after the side peaked during the 2017 Champions League final. James Rodriguez left and wasn’t replaced. Alvaro Morata left and wasn’t replaced. There was no attempt to lift the team forward and them help evolve, he happily let things plod along.
Even Zinedine Zidane got wise to what was going on, walking out on a supposed dream job after last Spring’s third consecutive Champions League triumph. The Frenchman saw an ageing, arrogant squad (they finished 17 points behind league winners Barcelona – their Champions League win was a huge slice of luck that masked how bad they had been) and a President that had no intention of fixing that.
Perez then destroyed Spain’s World Cup hopes by pulling Julen Lopetegui away from the national side without speaking to the national federation. He then didn’t give a system coach like Lopetegui the leeway he needed to transform the squad using Madrid’s admittedly great young talent, nor did he give him the time. Then he rushed Santi Solari into an impossible job and, surprise surprise, Solari hasn’t really done too much to help Los Blancos. Now he’s probably going to sack Solari without ever acknowledging that he is the main problem.