Champions League 2018-2019: Ajax VS Real Madrid Preview
The most successful team in the history of the Champions League has already achieved the impossible by winning the biggest prize in club football for the last three seasons. Could Real Madrid do it again this year? For a team loaded with so many world-class players, it would be difficult to deny that they can. What they do not have this time around is the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo. Real Madrid's all-time leading goal scorer has dominated the competition, and in each of Madrid's four Champions League wins in the last five seasons, CR7 finished as the tournament's top scorer. In fact, he finished the tournament's top scorer for the last six consecutive seasons.
Replacing a once-in-a-generation talent was never going to be easy. What made it doubly difficult for Los Merengues was the departure of another legend in his own right, Zinedine Zidane. After a historic playing career, Zidane decided to make the transition into coaching. What a decision that turned out to be. Zidane, in just two and a half years as the manager of Real Madrid, won a total of nine trophies. That's a trophy every 17 games in charge. Zidane left the Madrid job as one of the most successful managers in Champions League history, no manager has more than his three European titles.
Florentino Pérez started the rebuilding process with the controversial hiring of then Spanish national team manager Lopetegui days before the start of the World Cup. The timing of this announcement saw Lopeteguil lose the Spain job before the World Cup kick-off.
Lopetegui's expertise with the handling young players made him seemed perfect for the next phase of the club. Perez and the club have been planning this for quite some time. In the last six seasons, Real Madrid has bought a whopping 27 players at an average age of about 21 years old. While this fit looked understandable from the outside, the shoes of Ronaldo and Zidane were just too big to fill and with the club languishing in 9th place in La Liga Perez pulled the plug on Lopetegui's time in the Spanish capital.
Santiago Solari has restored some respect to the badge since coming in at first interim and now permanent manager. The club is climbing the table with each week, but there is still much work to do for this transitional Real Madrid group if they are to become European Champions for the 14th time.
One team that definitely knows about working with developing players is Ajax. The Amsterdam club is littered with academy players and always have been. Ajax's history suggests that many of these players would be future stars for other European teams. Young Frenkie De Jong has already put pen to paper for Real Madrid's eternal rivals FC Barcelona and Ajax captain, golden boy winner Matthijs de Ligt is expected to make his move soon. This particular group are the nearly-men of Dutch football finishing runners up in the Eredivisie for the last four seasons as well as falling in the Europa League final to Manchester United in 2017. The additions of Dušan Tadić, Daley Blind, this season and former Madrista Jan Klaas Huntelaar last, was an attempt to give some guidance to this young group. It has worked somewhat as Ajax have been unbeaten in this seasons Champions League picking up draws both home and away against Bayern. But a round of 16 exit to the defending champions might be the furthest this group can go.
Predicted Line-up: Ajax
If Erik ten Hag can pull off a win over two legs over Real Madrid it would surely be the biggest upset of the round of 16. It is not unbelievable though Louis van Gaal showed the world that it can be done. Dušan Tadić has been an inspiring signing, the Serbian international is having an amazing season and is a true leader of this football team. Ziyech and Neres both caused Bayern's wing-back issues in the group stage and with Madrid experiencing uncertainty in the wing-back positions this could be exploited. Argentinian Nicolás Tagliafico started all four games for his country in the World Cup and has come back to Ajax as a difference maker scoring three goals in the Champions League this season.
Goals(all season)- Dušan Tadić 22, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar 15, Hakim Ziyech 14
Key Player - Dušan Tadić, The former Southampton man has a lot of responsibility in this young team for good reason. Needs to lead by example if Ajax are to pull off a massive upset.
Predicted Line-up: Real Madrid
Solari line-ups have been difficult to guess but he has shown a liking to 18-year-old Brazilian phenom Vinicius Jr. Vinicius is becoming more important to this Los Blancos which each passing game. Leading the line should be Karim Benzema whose 18 goals this season has already surpassed his last season total. Isco, Asensio and even Gareth Bale are not guaranteed starters. While there is some fierce competition at the right back and left back positions. Odriozola and Reguilón have forced Real Madrid to send Hakimi and Theo on loan and now the pair is putting pressure on Marcelo and Carvajal. Balon d'Or holder Luka Modric has shown his ability to carry a team after last summer's exploits and the Croatian is finding his form as the "business-end" of the season looms. His midfield partners Toni Kroos and Casemiro have also seen a recent upturn in form just in time for when the lights shine brightest.
Goals (all season)- Karim Benzema 18, Gareth Bale 12, Sergio Ramos 11
Key Player - Sergio Ramos, With Ronaldo out Ramos has made this team his own. Galvanizing his army and commanding instructions at the back while chipping in with goals. Needs to have his team switched on so they avoid embarrassment.