A disallowed Ajax goal provoked more talk of fortune favouring the Blancos but their 2-1 win in Amsterdam simply underlined their resilience
Somehow the European champions emerged from the Johan Cruyff Arena on Wednesday night with a 2-1 win, despite the hosts dominating this absorbing Champions League last-16 first leg.
At this stage, it almost seems like Real Madrid’s plan to only start playing in the spring, as if anything that comes before February is just part of an extended pre-season.
Los Blancos’ eyes only seem to light up when the Champions League knock-outs swing around. It is that passion for this competition which has resulted in them winning three in a row.
Suckered in by their disastrous start under Julen Lopetegui, many started to write off Madrid for a fourth Champions League victory on the spin.
But, like clockwork, Madrid have reinvented themselves under Santiago Solari and must be considered among the favourites once more, especially because of nights like this in Amsterdam.
To their credit, Ajax didn’t care one iota about Madrid’s status. One of the most exciting teams left in the competition, the Dutch side were fearless and sent a couple of efforts flying across the face of Thibaut Courtois’s goal.
The only respite for Madrid came from the man who is perhaps the emblem of Solari’s revival, Vinicius Junior, who lashed an effort in which former Masia keeper Andre Onana tipped over.
Another Barcelona link could be found in Ajax’s midfield, with €75 million man Frenkie de Jong getting his first taste of combat with the Catalans’s arch-rivals ahead of his move to Camp Nou in the summer.
This was a bitter pill for him to swallow but also one of the most important lessons he can learn about Madrid.
Ajax turned the screw and actually took the lead before half-time thanks to a Courtois error, but VAR spared the Belgian goalkeeper’s blushes.
Dusan Tadic, who struck the post minutes earlier with a fierce effort, was deemed to be offside, just in front of Courtois and therefore interfering in place.
Madrid were saved by the technology that they have railed against on an institutional level this season, even launching a campaign against its use in Spanish media.
President Florentino Perez went so far as to threaten to step down from his position on the board of the directors at the Spanish FA over decisions made using VAR.
Perhaps he’ll feel differently now. Sergio Ramos certainly does, even insisting afterwards that he has long been a supporter of video technology.
With a long delay, close to three minutes, while the officials and eventually referee Damir Skomina pored over the replays, many will be furious over the implementation of VAR, with some going so far as to suggest the acronym stands for ‘Video Assisting Real’.
It was the correct call, though, even if it was hard not to feel sorry for Ajax, who deserved to lead at the break, with Madrid having faced 11 shots on goal.
But lying under the cosh is not unfamiliar territory for Madrid, despite their superb record in this competition. We have seen them suffer countless times in the past, especially away from home, but always come out on top.
One slack moment and Madrid can pounce in a flash, as they did with Vinicius’s barnstorming run into the box to tee up Karim Benzema, who rifled home clinically to open the scoring.
Solari’s side couldn’t hold to their lead, with Ajax seizing a more than merited equaliser through Ziyech’s cool finish.
Madrid, though, didn’t even have to settle for a draw, as Dani Carvajal’s superb cross lured Onana out of position and left Asensio with a simple finish at the far post with three minutes to go.
Already convinced this lead was enough to take Madrid through to the next round, Ramos earned what looked like a deliberate yellow card that will rule him out of the second leg.
Article continues below
It was a typically cynical piece of play from the Madrid skipper on his 600th appearance. He’s been here before and knows he has bigger fish to fry.
Certainly, Madrid will be delighted with their evening’s work, despite spending long periods under intense pressure.
Their critics will say fortune favoured them again but Madrid make their own luck in the Champions League. As their record of 13 European Cups proves.