Real Madrid will attempt to shrug off their domestic woes and advance into the last eight of a competition they regard as their own – the Champions League – with Tuesday night’s second leg against Ajax.
In normal circumstances, this game would be regarded as nothing more than a formality with the reigning champions holding a 2-1 advantage from the first leg in Amsterdam, but a traumatic pair of defeats to arch rivals Barcelona appears to have left Los Blancos more vulnerable than usual.
Manager Santi Solari insists morale is high despite his team’s setbacks in the last seven days, and he will be hoping to see them perform with the kind of swagger that has been badly missing for the majority of this season.
Let’s take a look at the game’s pressing points…
How much will Real miss Ramos?
Real will be without their captain Sergio Ramos after he earned a one-match suspension during the latter stages of the first leg – with the punishment later doubled after the veteran defender foolishly admitted he had picked up the booking on purpose.
The obvious candidate to replace him in the centre of defence is Nacho, another highly experienced performer who is more than capable of slotting straight into the back line alongside Raphael Varane.
However, more than Ramos’s presence as a defender – which has not always been particularly reassuring in recent weeks – the home side could miss his motivational qualities as a passionate and intense leader, especially if Ajax set nerves jangling by scoring the opening goal.
Ramos’s heroics in dragging his team forward in times of adversity have been well chronicled over the years, and the team’s currently frailty and vulnerability could make him particularly missed in that respect. At the time he picked up his booking, Ramos obviously felt his team-mates would cope just fine without him – if that’s not the case, he will end up looking more foolish than ever.
Who will score the goals?
After their 2-1 triumph in the first leg, a draw or even a 1-0 defeat would be enough to send Real into the quarter-finals – and that’s just as well, because at the moment it’s hard to see where their next goal might come from.
The last two games saw Solari’s team suffer the indignity of consecutive blanks against Barcelona, who won 3-0 in the Copa del Rey and 1-0 in La Liga at the Bernabeu in the last week. Granted, Ajax’s defence may well not be able to perform to the high standard of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique and co, but the lack of confidence in front of goal exhibited by all his forwards must be a cause for concern for the Real coach.
The biggest selection decision faced by Solari is whether to keep faith with Gareth Bale following his lacklustre Clasico showing, or recall Lucas Vazquez to the right wing after he missed the weekend meeting through suspension, or there could even be a recall for Marco Asensio. Whoever is selected, though, for the sake of the team’s sense of self-esteem, they just need to do one thing: score some goals.
Will Ajax really believe?
Heading to the Bernabeu with a deficit to overturn in the knockout stages of the Champions League is one of the most daunting tasks in football, and Ajax fans would be half-forgiven for assuming their team has next to no chance of mounting a comeback.
However, considering the lack of consistency displayed by Los Blancos throughout the season, there is no need for the Dutch side to adopt a negative attitude. Several visiting teams to the Bernabeu have already gained the result needed by Ajax to at least force extra time on Tuesday night: most obviously Barcelona (3-0 in the Spanish cup), but also lesser lights Real Sociedad (2-0 winners in La Liga), Girona (2-1), Levante (2-1) and even CSKA Moscow (3-0 winners in the Champions League group stage).
So the precedent has been set, and Ajax must convince themselves they would hardly be making history if they managed to beat Real Madrid on their own turf. The visitors can also take confidence from the way they gained a 3-0 away victory over Feyenoord in the Dutch Cup in their last away game, and they are well rested after being given the weekend off in their domestic league. So they have genuine chance of turning the tie around…but only if they really believe.
Know more about Sport360 Application