Masterclass in Madrid

Friday 22 April 2022 10:00

Erik ten Hag’s era at Ajax has been a story of continual growth and consistent improvement over a four-year period.

But if there is one specific 90 minutes that caught the attention of the wider football world, it took place on the evening of Tuesday 5 March 2019, at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid.

Ajax went into this UEFA Champions League last-16 second-leg game away to Real Madrid on the back of a frustrating 2-1 home defeat in the first leg.

Ten Hag’s team were the better side in Amsterdam – a fact illustrated by Real’s goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois being named man-of-the-match – but a double sucker-punch from the clinical Madrilenos, firstly from Karim Benzema and then a late winner from Marco Asensio gave Ajax a mountain to climb in the second leg, particularly as Real had won the Champions League in three consecutive seasons and were aiming for a ninth consecutive quarter-final place.

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It looked odds-on that the Amsterdam side’s gruelling Champions League campaign which had begun in July was coming to an end at the first knockout stage.

Their European season had kicked off at the second qualifying stage with home-and-away wins over Sturm Graz, and they had to get past Standard Liege and Dynamo Kyiv in order to qualify for the group stage, meaning Ajax had already played six matches in the competition before August was out.

The group stage pitted them against Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK Athens, and Ten Hag orchestrated a six-game unbeaten run in the group, enjoying two draws against Bayern – 1-1 in Bavaria and 3-3 in Amsterdam.

That thriller on matchday six saw Ajax on course to beat the German giants and top the group – they were leading 2-1 with three minutes to go – before a crazy closing spell saw Bayern score twice to take a 3-2 lead, only for Ajax to snatch a draw with a 95th-minute equaliser.

That second-placed slot saw Ten Hag’s side drawn against Real Madrid in the last-16. History was on the side of the perennial tournament winners from Spain but they were enduring a rocky spell, already on their second manager of the season and having suffered their record home defeat in the European Cup/Champions League in their previous game at the Bernabeu, albeit in a dead rubber.

On that night CSKA Moscow won 3-0, and Ten Hag knew his side would also need to score at least twice in the Spanish capital.

Could they?

Ten Hag shakes hands with Rapha Varane after the Bernabeu victory.

Yes they could. One of the most miraculous comebacks in Champions League history was on after just seven minutes when Hakim Ziyech’s opener gave hope to their task, and their two-goal lead was established inside 20 minutes through David Neres.

The night of dreams got even better for the Dutch side after 62 minutes when the brilliant Dusan Tadic – provider of the first two goals – fired home from outside the box. Real fought back with a goal from Asensio again, but Ajax made it 4-1 a few minutes later to kill the tie off and become the first team to overturn a 2-1 home defeat in the knockout stages of the Champions League.

The story didn’t end there for Ten Hag and co. Drawn against Juventus in the quarter-finals, they would once again face Cristiano Ronaldo following his summer move from Madrid, with CR7 having scored seven goals in four previous Champions League games against Ajax.

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Ronaldo made it eight in five when he opened the scoring, but a second-half leveller left the game finely poised going into the second leg in Turin.

That man Ronaldo struck again in the first half of the second leg, handing the Italian champions a clear advantage, but matches against Bayern and Real had taught this young Dutch side to never give up.

A stunning fightback was on once again when Donny van de Beek equalised after 34 minutes and Ajax’s dominance was rewarded with Matthijs de Ligt’s second-half winner that sent the club into the Champions League semi-finals for the first time since 1997.

UEFA’s correspondent at the match Paolo Menicucci put the performance into context by stating: ‘I have seen Juventus lose in this stadium, albeit not many times, but I have never seen a team dominate here as Ajax did in the second half tonight. The young Dutch side played brilliant football and could have scored many more if they had been more clinical.’

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Ajax’s adventure ended at the semi-final stage at the hands of Spurs, but not before van de Beek’s goal sealed a 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Lucas Moura’s second-half hat-trick and 96th-minute winner in Amsterdam gave the Londoners a dramatic away-goals victory, leaving ten Hag to muse: “Football can be very beautiful and it can be very cruel – we have had to experience that today.”

But it was the beauty of the incredible performance in Madrid, described by Ten Hag as 'pretty close to perfection', that would live longest in the memory.

Ten Hag will be aiming to create many more moments like that in Manchester now.