Peter Dejong/Associated Press
Real Madrid took a step toward reaching the quarter-final of the UEFA Champions League after beating Ajax 2-1 in the last 16 on Wednesday night.
Substitute Marco Asensio scored the winner in the 87th minute of the first leg at the Johan Cruyff ArenA. Karim Benzema had given the holders the lead on the hour mark, only for Hakim Ziyech to equalise 15 minutes from time.
There was controversy in the first half when VAR helped Real. Ajax thought they had taken the lead through Nicolas Tagliafico, only for the referee to consult the video review and judge Dusan Tadic was offside and blocking Thibaut Courtois’ path to the ball:
Ultimately Real, who have lifted the trophy in four of the last five seasons, including each of the last three, ensure a healthy aggregate lead ahead of the second leg on Tuesday, March 5.
Luka Modric is a Fading Force
The problem with hitting the peak of your career late on is there’s no direction but down, and the fall is always tougher on a veteran. Luka Modric knows the feeling because the 33-year-old Ballon d’Or winner is fast becoming a fading force.
Dictating the tempo and purpose of Real’s passing remains Croatia international Modric’s remit. It’s a job he’s excelled in for years, but the ball is beginning to be moved just a touch slower, while passes are a little safer than they were in recent seasons.
Modric found it tough to get Real moving forward.Soccrates Images/Getty Images
The impact on Real’s momentum going forward is clear. Things are sluggish instead of slick, unimaginative instead of incisive.
Usually a guarantee of technical excellence, Modric is beginning to show signs that his touch and radar are failing him. Ominous proof came when he overhit a through ball even Bale couldn’t catch at the start of the second half, despite being under no pressure when he played it.
Creating anything of note was a problem for Modric, particularly early on:
It was no surprise some zeroed in on the former Tottenham Hotspur schemer when thinking how Real could improve things at the end of a goalless opening 45 minutes:
While things did improve for Real as a whole after the break, Modric still failed to exert the same imperious control many have come to expect from the cerebral conductor.
It may seem harsh to chide a modern great for not being quite as dominant as he once was, but the slight dip in form is an ominous warning for Real.
The club’s best player is fading.
Premier League Giants Made Massive Mistake Overlooking Bargain Tadic
Okay, so Tadic has exceeded expectations since swapping Southampton for Amsterdam last summer. Even so, how did the Premier League’s best overlook a player this prolific, one who cost a mere £10 million?
The fee, peanuts in today’s inflated market, is beyond good value for Ajax. It’s also an indictment of how the giants of the Premier League scout, recruit and spend.
Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea all made a massive mistake overlooking Tadic. He’s scored 22 goals and assisted 12 more since becoming the star of this Ajax team.
Resurgent Tadic didn’t look out of place against the Champions League’s most successful club.Peter Dejong/Associated Press
Tadic showed the outrageous form is no fluke with a performance perfectly fusing industry with artistry. He tore into the holders, showcasing both a keen eye for goal and a perceptive range of movement.
The former quality saw Tadic go close early when he smacked a shot off the post with Courtois well beaten. Yet it was the way Tadic found and exploited space that had Real baffled.
He consistently dropped off the front and roamed out of the middle. Tadic’s wanderlust took him into the channels, where his wizardry helped drag defenders out of position and created ample chances for the lively hosts.
Tadic’s enterprising display made him stand out above more decorated opposition, particularly during the first half:
It’s verging on scandalous to think about why members of the Premier League’s top six could have overlooked Tadic. Consider City spent £60 million for Riyad Mahrez to warm the bench, while United are still trying to get something, anything, from the bloated contract handed to Alexis Sanchez last January.
Sanchez’s former club Arsenal, having been short of spending power, could surely have used a proven creative talent available on the cheap. Especially since head coach Unai Emery remains reluctant to start highest-earner Mesut Ozil.
To have had a front-row seat to Tadic’s ability and development in England and still not made a move is a staggering oversight.
Ajax are at home to NAC in the Eredivisie on Sunday, the same day Real host Girona in La Liga.