Alate goal from Marco Asensio earned Real Madrid a 1-2 victory at Ajax in what was a scintillating 90 minutes of football in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 on Tuesday night at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam.
Ajax were the better side in the first 45 minutes and controversially had a goal taken off the board, before Benzema struck at the hour mark after some fantastic playmaking from Vinicius. The Dutch hosts never backed down though and were good value for their equaliser through Hakim Ziyech, only for Asensio to come off the bench and provide the winner and the precious second away goal in the final minutes.
Also of note for Real was the performance centre-back Sergio Ramos. On what was a difficult night against a hard-pressing Ajax side, the veteran defender was at his best in clearing nearly every ball that came into the Real area.
Manager Santiago Solari had to shuffle his back line due to Raphael Varane coming down with the flu, so Nacho was given the nod to pair with Ramos. Solari’s faith in Sergio Reguilon continued, as the youngster was slotted in at left-back ahead of veteran Marcelo. Lucas Vazquez has normally been a starter for the Argentine boss, but not on this day, as Gareth Bale’s return sent the Galician to the bench.
Ajax came out suffocating Real in their own half leading to a number of early looks. The movement and rotation of the Ajax attackers were confusing the Real defence and the intense pressure applied by the hosts had Solari’s men pegged back.
At the same time, the spaces were there for Real in which to operate and an early break almost led to a Vinicius score, but the Brazilian’s hard-hit effort was saved by Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana.
But Real were made to suffer in the first half and Dusan Tadic was mere inches from giving Ajax a lead but saw his shot bounce off the post. The Dutch side were creating the chances, while Real were reverting to the unfamiliar approach of firing long balls upfield, which did not suit their play.
Ajax’s passing acumen was on display and it laid the groundwork for the best chance of the first 45 minutes when Ziyech found himself all alone with Real stopper Thibaut Courtois, but the big Belgian came up with a massive save.
Good fortune was also on Real’s side minutes later when an Ajax goal was taken off the scoreboard. Nicolas Tagliafico thought that he had headed in after a deflection in front of the Real goal, but VAR ruled that there was an infraction on Tadic on the play, much to the dismay of home supporters.
Real looked to start the second half with more control and Benzema finally got a look at goal when his stinging right-footer forced Onana into a save. Ajax was just as aggressive though and David Neres should have done better to finish a counter but shot right at Courtois.
You can only pardon Real so many times and Ajax learned that lesson the hard way right before the hour mark when Benzema broke the deadlock to make it 0-1. Reguilon floated a pass to Vinicius down the left and the Brazilian then took over, using his speed and movement to streak past a slew of Ajax defenders before slipping a pass to the unmarked Benzema, who fired in for the goal.
Solari used the moment to make his first change, bringing off Bale for Lucas Vazquez followed minutes later by a hobbling Benzema yielding his spot to Asensio.
Ajax continued to plug away in search of an equaliser and a lapse from the Real defence proved to be just the opening they needed. Lucas Vazquez lost the ball in his own half and Ajax pounced quickly, ending with a Neres cross for Ziyech, who one-timed in past Courtois to pull Ajax level 1-1.
Solari made his final switch with Mariano replacing Vinicius, as both sides hunted for a winner. In the end, Real showed the pedigree of champions and struck in the final minutes through Asensio. Dani Carvajal received a ball down the right and swung a pass across that Asensio latched onto with his left foot end redirected into goal for the 1-2 final, giving Real a healthy advantage going into the return leg early next month.
1.- Ajax: Onana; Tagliafico, Blind, De Ligt, Mazraoui; De Jong, Van de Beek, Ziyech; Neres, Schone (Dolberg, min. 73), Tadic.
2.- Real Madrid: Courtois; Carvajal, Nacho, Ramos, Reguilon; Casemiro, Kroos, Modric; Vinicius (Mariano,min. 80), Bale (Lucas Vazquez, min. 62), Benzema (Asensio, min. 73).
Goals: 0-1, min. 60: Benzema; 1-1, min. 75: Ziyech; 1-2, min. 87: Asensio
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia). Yellow Cards: Ziyech (Min. 53) for Ajax; Reguilon (Min. 69) for Real Madrid, Lucas Vazquez (Min. 83) for Real Madrid
Red cards: None
Stadium: Johan Cruyff Arena