Marco Asensio rose from the substitutes’ bench to give clinical Champions League holders Real Madrid a hard-earned 2-1 away win at lively Ajax in their round-of-16 opener.
The Eredivisie giants burst out the blocks, but Argentina left-back Nicolas Tagliafico was denied a first-half header because of the video-assistant referee. An offside Dusan Tadic, critically, impeded Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Los Blancos made the most of this let off on the hour mark when ex-France striker Karim Benzema blasted into the roof of the net from Brazilian winger Vinicius Junior’s pass. Ajax remained undaunted, however, and lively Morocco attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech soon converted David Neres’ cross.
A stalemate seemed likely until a sweeping Madrid counter-attack allowed right-back Dani Carvajal to produce a perfect centre for fellow Spain international Asensio to prod home at the back post.
VIN AND YOU WIN
A defining month for Real Madrid has the dancing footprints of Vinicius Junior all over it. He’s impossible to ignore, even if Ajax defenders did just that.
Indeed, the Brazilian was once again instrumental, and that shouldn’t really surprise us now after starring roles in the Copa del Rey semi-final opener with Barcelona and then in the Madrid derby at the weekend.
This was a performance hallmarked by industry and perseverance. Real did not always look to attack through the 18-year-old as they had done in the previously mentioned fixtures.
But he continued to buzz around the pitch with the determination of a player desperate to make an impact.
When he did, it came at the most crucial time from Real’s perspective. Ajax were readying themselves for another onslaught having eased off slightly following a frenetic first-half effort.
Sergio Reguillon lifted the ball into the left channel, Vinicius completely roasted Noussair Mazraoui, sharply cut inside the box, dropped his shoulder to deceive Mattijs de Ligt before calmly shifting the ball to Benzema who finished emphatically.
The warning sign was there for De Ligt as well because Vinicius had used the same movement in the first half to unleash a strike of his own with the Netherlands defender caught too square and just not agile enough to get in the way.
Vinicius is now firmly established in this Real team and the hierarchy is clear after Gareth Bale was brought off on the hour.
The Wales winger will be battling alongside Asensio for a spot in the team and the Spaniard fortified his case by netting the second after rising from the bench.
AJAX’S FEROCIOUS FIRST-HALF
Ajax seemed to harness the pent-up aggression of 13 years without Champions League knockout football and explode on Real.
The visitors were absolutely battered in the first half. Ajax poured forward as if the Real players had just robbed them of their most precious possession, stealing the ball back with a mask of rage and then bullying Madrid into a corner.
They pummeled the defence with fast and fluid combinations, but just couldn’t find the decisive blow. When Nicolas Tagliafico thought he had, his header was correctly – albeit controversially – ruled out for offside in the first VAR decision in Champions League history after Dusan Tadic interfered with a rather red-cheeked Thibaut Courtois’ line of sight.
The Belgium stopper could count himself very fortunate after making a mess of De Ligt’s powerful header from the initial corner with the ball spinning up into the air and toward Tagliafico.
Yet, the first-half was truly something to marvel. On virtually every occasion Ajax attacked, only De Ligt and goalkeeper Andre Onana remained in their own half.
There were so many options for the man on the ball with at least six or seven players ahead of him, all pulsating in and out of space like a panting wolf.
It was the modern iteration of the Total Football philosophy, rapid movement and continuous fluid running from young, athletic players who interchanged positions across the pitch from full-backs as wingers, midfielders as attackers and wingers as forwards.
It was genuine shame Ajax did not prosper from this strategy at first because invariably when they slowed down in the second half, Real punished them, landing the hardest strike of the night.
Ajax responded of course, but another huge fight awaits in the Spanish capital.
RAMOS IS RAMBO
This was Sergio Ramos’ 600th appearance for Los Blancos and it was one of the captain’s finest performances. Real took heavy fire in the first half but they owed much of their parity to the all-action hero.
He may as well have had a headband on and a range of large weapons at his disposal because Ramos was Rambo for the night, practically defending by himself at times. There was at least three crucial interventions in the opening 45 minutes alone.
He did just enough to put off the rampaging Tadic as his effort scraped the post, did so again when the former Southampton forward was put clean through and then produced a magnificent block to thwart Ziyech’s cross.
In typical Ramos fashion, though, he was needlessly booked in the 89th minute and is now suspended for the second leg. The 32-year-old will be sorely missed.
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