Real Madrid rode their luck at times but came out on top 2-1 in Wednesday’s Champions League last 16 first leg at Ajax, with Karim Benzema, Marco Asensio and Hakim Ziyech the scorers.
The UCL winners of the last three seasons responded with character and skill to Ajax’s spirited challenge, and are in full control of the tie ahead of the return at the Bernabeu on March 5.
Benzema’s goalscoring run continued with a well-taken opener while, on the flanks, Vinicius Junior now has eight assists this season — more than any other Madrid player — and Asensio looks back to full match sharpness.
Madrid struggled to match Ajax intensity throughout and could easily have been 2-0 down at half-time, with Dusan Tadic hitting the post and a VAR call disallowing a Nicolas Tagliafico header. Although it is almost a Champions League tradition at this point for the Bernabeu outfit to throw in a few dodgy games while still going deep into the competition each year.
Manager rating out of 10
6 — Santi Solari’s decision to start both Gareth Bale and Vinicius in the XI for just the second time ever left the team too open and outmanned in midfield in the first half. Madrid seemed to lack a plan for how to deal with/work their way around Ajax’s high pressing of their back four.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Thibaut Courtois, 7 — Made excellent saves both before and after his key moment in the game — fumbling a simple catch allowing Tagliafico to nod home only for the officials to spot, via VAR, an Ajax player interfering from an offside position.
DF Dani Carvajal, 6 — Among those to really struggle as Ajax appeared to target his wing, with Brazilian winger David Neres having much the better of their personal duel. But had last laugh with curling cross for Asensio’s late winner.
DF Nacho Fernandez, 6 — Came in for flu victim Raphael Varane and was under pressure from the start, with Tadic especially causing all sorts of problems.
DF Sergio Ramos, 7 — Ramos’ 600th game for Madrid saw him characteristically mix lapses in concentration with heroic last gasp covering, which was badly needed at times. Cherry on top was late yellow card (his 201st for Los Blancos) so he serves suspension in second leg.
DF Sergio Reguilon, 6 — Came through the most difficult game of his career so far better than other more experienced colleagues in the back four, although did not pick up Ziyech for the Ajax goal.
MF Luka Modric, 6 — Suffered to match physicality of Ajax’s younger midfielders in first half, but upped game after break and involved in move which led to the opening goal.
MF Casemiro, 7 — Often running around chasing fires as Ajax dominated the first half, one sliding intervention was particularly crucial.
MF Toni Kroos, 6 — Took on Ajax’s super-intense pressing as a challenge to his technique, but was unable to properly force the game in the other direction.
FW Gareth Bale, 5 — Managed three efforts at goal from the right wing in the first half, although none troubled Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana and traffic was mostly going the other way. Unsurprisingly the first player substituted.
FW Karim Benzema, 7 — Out of the game as Ajax kept play down the other end in first half, but then provided deadly finish to put Madrid ahead when a chance did arrive. Seven goals in his last seven games now, although left early with back problem.
FW Vinicius Jr, 7 — His speed down left-wing was Madrid’s most reliable outlet throughout. Drew excellent save from Onana after cutting inside and letting fly in first half; similar direct run saw him assist Benzema’s goal.
FW Lucas Vazquez, 6 — Replaced Bale on the hour mark, after his hard work and tactical intelligence had earlier been sorely missed. Went down too easily and claimed foul as Ajax won ball back before their equaliser.
FW Marco Asensio, 7 — Almost scored soon after replacing Benzema with a superbly struck curler from 20 yards which hit the outside of the net on its way past. Then perfectly positioned to knock to empty net after Onana misjudged Carvajal’s cross in the 87th minute.
FW Mariano Diaz, N/R — Made little impression after taking over from Vinicius for the last 10 minutes.