UCL Preview: Ziyech and Ajax target the scalp of the champions
There is an incredible feeling of security and surety in the Real Madrid air which had become quite rare in the past few months, since the departure of the juggernaut, Cristiano Ronaldo and former boss in Zinedine Zidane. It’s worth noting now more than ever, by reason of a solid performance put in by Los Blancos to secure a 1-1 El-Clasico draw away at Barcelona on Wednesday, in the first leg of the Copa Del Rey semi-final. However, the next Wednesday presents a new challenge, one I believe to be the most revealing. The numbers 4, 21, and 22 do not sound a lot like a perfect symphony on paper but happen to be more than that on the field of play. Santiago Solari and Real Madrid will have to find a way to discord the harmony of the triad orchestra.
The Madrid context
I am talking about Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech and their shirt numbers. Ajax FC booked a UEFA Champions League round of 16 slot after a thoroughly impressive campaign that saw them finish second in a group that also featured Benfica, Bayern Munich and AEK Athens. The Dutch Eredivisie club actually finished the group stages unbeaten and will by no means be a free pass for the record 13 time champions who usually come alive at this stage of the competition. Real Madrid seemingly have their feet in the water; two managerial appointments in 4 months, teenage signings in the summer transfer window and 8 points off bitter rivals Barcelona in the La Liga title race; all do not tell a story of “the Madrid way.” The most recent El Clasico draw at the Camp Nou did offer some hope of a new and more resilient Real but the champions league outing to Ajax should be the biggest test to their resolve, yet.
Not the same story
What do I think of course, Madrid have been in this position before, when they will be off the pace in the Spanish La Liga but then go beast mode and conquer the whole of Europe, in a typical water to wine fashion. That’s actually how their have been rolling in the past few years, including those in which they grabbed 3 champions league titles in a row. With no Ronaldo in their squad, the all-time UCL record scorer and Zidane, the orchestrator of the 3 title triumphs and adding an unpopular but solid setup of Ajax to the equation - it’s an entirely different story this campaign. Erik ten Hagen’s men are giving the vibes of Dortmund 2013 who unexpectedly went all the way to the final, even knocking out Real Madrid in the process. The Amsterdam club comprises of course the 22-year-old Cameroonian international goalkeeper, Andre Onana and the big number 4, Matthijs de Ligt - the teenager good enough to captain the side. De Ligt has been frequenting in the news as the likes of PSG and Barcelona are reported to toiling day and night to win the signature of the big, young center-half. Speaking of Barcelona, they recently acquired Ajax’s number 21, Frenkie de Jong for £65 million, the star ball playing midfielder who is tipped to help fill the void left by Xavi and Andres Iniesta. The 21-year-old de Jong links up with de Ligt from the back and ignites the final magic number, shirt number 22 where it gets even more interesting.
We have featured the Moroccan here on FirstTouch, several times and was ofcourse one of the biggest topics of African football in the year 2018 when he appeared for Lions of the Atlas at the 2018 world cup in Russia. Regarded as currently one of the best playmakers in the world, Ziyech has been delivering the goods for Ajax since day 1 and Madrid will have to work on silencing the 25-year-old if they hope for a favorable result. His arm like left-foot remind me of my favorite childhood boxer who stung opponents with a left and earned the praise name, “Left-hooker.” After being deployed a bit further up the pitch as one of the front 3 in Erik ten Hagen’s 4-3-3 setup, Ziyech has proven worthy of the role.The Moroccan has since scored 12 goals and 8 others in 17 Eredivisie appearances. That is an astounding average of 1.2 goal involvement in every other match he has played.
I will just leave this one right there, who you got? Ajax or the serial champions, Real Madrid.
My Prediction: Ajax will go through to the quarter-finals by upsetting Los Blancos.