Real Madrid‘s players have to dust themselves down after their dismal last week, in which they lost to fierce rivals Barcelona twice to see their hopes of winning the Copa del Rey and/or La Liga both extinguished.
Attentions turn now to the one trophy they still can win, as they hold a 2-1 lead over Ajax in the Champions League round of 16 heading into Tuesday’s second leg at home, an advantage that puts them in the driving seat.
For the Ajax players, this fixture is the chance to make history as they try to produce a famous win and comeback to knock out the side that has won this competition three times in a row.
Here’s a look at the key player battles that will decide the game.
Luka Modric vs Frenkie de Jong
Luka Modric may be the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, but his performances this season haven’t been up to that high standard. The 33-year-old’s ability to take the game by the scruff of its neck and dominate it, seen to such brilliant effect during Croatia’s stunning run to last year’s World Cup final, has seemingly waned, and whether it’s fatigue after a long summer and short preseason, or just the beginning of a natural decline, Madrid haven’t seen that version of Modric often enough this season.
But perhaps this is the occasion. A tight Champions League clash against a young pretender in midfield may be just what Modric needs to raise his game.
Frenkie de Jong isn’t quite at the stage where he can be considered the same level as Modric, but there’s no doubting his talent. The 21-year-old has been the backbone of the Netherlands’ resurgence in international football and for Ajax at club level.
Modric dethroned Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; whether De Jong can do the same and beat the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe to the Ballon d’Or remains to be seen. For now, the intrigue in this potential rivalry is this: unless Modric moves this summer, De Jong will face the Croatian plenty of times in El Clasico after completing his move to Barcelona. Tuesday’s clash provides a tantalising preview.
Vinicius Junior vs Hakim Ziyech
The greatest compliment that can be paid to Vinicius Junior at the moment is that Barcelona’s defensive gameplan on Saturday was centred around stopping him. It worked, to an extent, as his impact was reduced and his finishing let him down, but that an 18-year-old playing only his third El Clasico can command such attention is testament to his potential.
Vinicius is unlikely to struggle as much against Ajax – though struggle is a relative term; despite a subdued performance against Barcelona he still led Madrid in shots and chances created.
If he brings his shooting boots as well, the Brazilian could bring the cheer back to the Santiago Bernabeu.
Hakim Ziyech could be forgiven for looking across the pitch on Tuesday and wondering what could be. The Moroccan has long been touted as one of the best young players in Europe, someone who could easily thrive at the continent’s elite clubs. Seeing a player seven years his junior in Vinicius get the chance to do just that might sting, if only a little.
No matter. Ziyech has blossomed into a star at Ajax and may still get a move to a bigger club. In the meantime, the 25-year-old can use Tuesday as an audition, showing what he’s capable of on one of football’s grandest stages.
Sergio Reguilon vs Nicolas Tagliafico
There weren’t many positives to take for Madrid while they were losing to Barcelona twice in four days, but, along with Vinicius, young left-back Sergio Reguilon was one of them.
Asked to step up as Marcelo’s form began to decline, the 22-year-old academy product has answered the call. Among players with at least 10 La Liga appearances for Madrid this season, only Casemiro and Sergio Ramos have more combined tackles, interceptions, clearances, and blocks per game than the deputy left-back.
And he’s no slouch going forward, either – only Toni Kroos and, coincidentally, Marcelo, have more key passes per game, while on Saturday Reguilon had the most dribbles for Madrid, topping even Vinicius. Los Blancos may have unearthed a gem.
Much like the battle between Vinicius and Ziyech, the clash of left-backs also provides a transfer-related subplot. Though Reguilon has performed admirably in Marcelo’s stead, Madrid are said to be looking at the transfer market for players at the position – and Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico is one of the players to be linked with a move.
The Argentine may be determined to put on a show for his prospective future employers, though simply trying to help Ajax pull off a stunning win will no doubt be motivation enough for the 26-year-old. But if he does outshine Reguilon, Tagliafico could soon be playing at the Bernabeu much more regularly.
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