From the very first whistle, Ajax made it clear that Real Madrid wouldn’t have it easy.
February’s first leg was a blur of motion. Ajax gave their esteemed opponents little time to breathe or think, pressing high up the pitch with a ferociousness that only grew in the second half. There were times when Madrid couldn’t get out of their own half. It was down to misfortune and Karim Benzema’s tidy finishing that the Dutch left 2-1 losers.
Undeterred, Ajax invaded the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday with the same vigor, precision, and relentlessness. They ran away with a 4-1 victory (5-3 on aggregate) that will reverberate in Dutch football for years to come.
Teams threatened Madrid in this competition before, but none of them could do what Ajax did. Wolfsburg and Schalke came close to kicking Madrid out of the Champions League in recent years, only for Los Blancos to upend the narrative at home.
Ajax didn’t give Madrid a chance to feel comfortable, to feel like they were their old, invincible selves. They continued to press high, which allowed them to win possession in crucial areas of the pitch. It’s how Hakim Ziyech scored the visitors’ first goal, and it’s why Madrid could never regain their shape. Ziyech set the tone early in the first half, stealing the ball off Toni Kroos before finishing the counter he started. It was the kind of 50-50 duel Ajax won all over the pitch.
Ajax just had to be efficient with and without the ball – two of the most underrated principles of Johan Cruyff’s football philosophy. They swarmed Madrid on the edge of their own box, and when they did have the ball, they moved it quickly forward, releasing dangerous vertical passes down the gut of the pitch.
It was necessary for Ajax to play aggressively in the second leg – they were, after all, in need of goals to overturn the deficit – and they were devastating in their execution. Dusan Tadic reveled in his false-nine role, Frenkie de Jong reacted calmly whenever he was hounded, and Matthijs de Ligt pushed up to collect loose balls.
“Fantastic to win 4-1 here,” De Jong said afterward. “Although, to be honest, I don’t think we played much worse at home, we just had bad luck with the result. And tonight everything seemed to work out.”
Tadic’s second-leg effort was outstanding. Perhaps Madrid gave the Serbian playmaker a little too much room, but he still made the three-time defending champions look like fools. He held off defenders and laid off passes with ease. Tadic was central to Ajax’s attack, as the variety of his runs made it difficult for Madrid to come up with an answer.
Criticism of Madrid will ensue, and it’s true they were far too open for a team that didn’t have to score. They took a load of shots and hit the post twice but forgot to play with any structure. Blessed with the away-goal advantage, Madrid had every reason to play on the counter themselves. Instead, Los Blancos gave Ajax the open game they wanted.
The Dutch giants deserved a night like this. For years, they toiled to stay relevant while losing every young player that showed a hint of promise. Even after this season, no matter how far they go in the Champions League, they’ll lose yet more talent.
But Tuesday’s win proved Ajax are still alive. The principles that made them one of the greatest forces in European football are still being taught and, for once, the players that learned those lessons stuck around long enough to pay back the club that made them who they are.