Real Madrid took home a crucial one-goal lead from the Champions League Round of 16 first leg on Wednesday, as Marco Asensio scored a late winner.

In what was one of the most challenging knockout games in recent years for the UEFA Champions League holders, the visitors struggled to cope with relentless Ajax pressing at times. In fact, Erik ten Hag’s men were arguably the better side over the 90 minutes, with their wasteful finishing proving to be their undoing.

Indeed, the hosts created the bulk of the chances in a captivating first half, with Vinicius Jr. coming close for Real Madrid on the other end on one occasion. Ajax though, should have scored when Dusan Tadic sliced his effort onto the woodwork before Thibaut Courtois smothered Hakim Ziyech’s shot.

But, Courtois later had VAR to thank for a contentious decision. Nicolas Tagliafico headed in the stray ball that was spilled by the Belgian, only to see the goal being ruled out by the referee, who after consulting with VAR officials adjudged Tadic to be offside when he was obstructing Courtois.

 

With a reprieve handed to them, Real Madrid punished Ajax by finally breaking the deadlock at the hour mark as Karim Benzema produced a composed finish after some fine individual brilliance by Vinicius. Ajax then came close through Kasper Dolberg, but their frustrations continued.

The elusive goal, however, finally came with 15 minutes left in regulation time as Ziyech finished off from a low cross by David Neres. But, Real would have the last laugh in the first leg tie as Marco Asensio had the simplest of tap-ins to make from a beautiful Dani Carvajal cross that evaded Andre Onana.

Los Blancos thus, take a crucial one-goal lead back home, with two away goals to boot, handing them a major advantage in their bid to progress to the quarter-finals. The Hard Tackle now runs the rule over Santiago Solari’s men, following the Argentine’s first Champions League knockout match in charge of Real Madrid.

Thibaut Courtois: 6.5/10

A game in which Courtois was both very good and very bad, although the latter phase did not end up costing him anything. An inexplicable fumble saw Nicolas Tagliafico score, only for the Belgian to be saved by VAR. But, Courtois also produced a fantastic save to deny Ziyech in the first half. Couldn’t have done anything to thwart the Moroccan for his goal, though.

Dani Carvajal: 6/10

Carvajal had a taxing battle with David Neres. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Carvajal had a taxing battle with David Neres. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

 

Wednesday’s outing was one of Carvajal’s poorest defensive showing in a Real Madrid shirt. Indulging in an intriguing duel with David Neres, the Spaniard ended up as the second best by quite some margin, with the Brazilian winger running him ragged in the first half.

Carvajal also allowed Neres to cross in from his flank for the only goal that Ajax scored, but would go on to end the night on a high. With Real in search of a winner, the full-back embarked on a fine run down the right wing before producing a sumptuous cross that only needed a simple tap-in, where Marco Asensio did not make any mistake.

Nacho: 5/10

A surprise starter, with Raphael Varane recovering from a flu, Nacho was part of the back four that had no answers for the relentless attacking moves that Ajax were creating. Did nothing to help the struggling Carvajal either and was also at fault for Ziyech getting an easy chance to score the equaliser. Did improve in the second half though, the moment for Ziyech’s goal notwithstanding.

Sergio Ramos: 7/10

A game of two halves for Ramos, who could do nothing to organise his backline against the continuous pressure produced by the hosts. But, the Real Madrid captain came into his own in the second half as the Champions League holders took control.

Also did well with his distribution at the back, which helped the visitors impose themselves. Ended the match with three tackles, four interceptions and as many clearances, but also with a booking that will see him miss the second leg. Nevertheless, Ramos was a big reason why Real go home with the narrow lead.

Sergio Reguilon: 6/10

Reguilon has done well to usurp Marcelo over the course of this season. But, on Wednesday, the young Spaniard took a step back in what was arguably the trickiest game of his career. Struggled against the threat of Ziyech for the most part, also failing to mark him for his goal.

But, he also had his fair share of positive moments trying to stop the Moroccan and also joined in attack more consistently in the second half. A game that will help Reguilon with his learning curve.

Luka Modric: 5/10

Modric was not quite at his best on Wednesday. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Modric was not quite at his best on Wednesday. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Modric has been one of the in-form players for Real Madrid during their best run of the season. But, on Wednesday, the visitors grabbed a win in spite of the Croat, who for the most part could not cope with the pressing and fast paced counters produced by Ajax. As a result, the Ballon d’Or holder could not impose himself when on the ball either. A rare blip.

Casemiro: 7/10

Casemiro was by far the best player in midfield for Real Madrid, having been diligent in his defensive duties for the most part. In fact, it was due to the Brazilian’s astute reading of the game that several Ajax moves were nipped right before they could enter the opposition box, with a slide tackle in particular being crucial when the score was 0-0.

Toni Kroos: 6.5/10

Like Modric, Kroos was far from his best on Wednesday as well, with the difference being his ability to force his way out of potentially hairy moments more consistently than his fellow creative midfielder. Also involved in the move that led to Benzema’s goal, having played a brilliant looping ball to Vinicius in the build-up.

Gareth Bale: 5/10

After a strong cameo in El Derbi Madrileno, Bale got the chance to return to the starting lineup and stake claim for a regular role in the side. But, the Welshman failed to grab his opportunity, as he could not drive Real forward on the turnover of possession, while his speculative shots were too easy for Andre Onana to save. Should be back on the bench next time around.

Karim Benzema: 7/10

A quiet first half saw Benzema rarely being involved, with Real Madrid struggling to get the ball to him. But, the match saw the Frenchman being as clinical as they come, taking his one big chance and converting it with a fine finish from Vinicius’ pass. Now the fourth player in history to score at least 60 Champions League goals.

Vinicius Junior: 7.5/10

Vinicius was the inspiration that helped the holders to a tough win on Wednesday. The only player who looked like making a difference in the first half, the Brazilian looked to drive his side forward whenever he got the ball, even testing Onana with a driven shot.

Ended up creating the deadlock-breaking goal almost all on his own, with his brilliant dribble creating acres of space inside the Ajax box for Benzema to score from. Just continues to grow into an indispensable figure, and despite his nascent age he looks like the real deal.

SUBSTITUTES

Lucas Vazquez: 5/10

The first substitution of the match, Solari would have hoped for Lucas Vazquez to be an upgrade on Bale. But, the Spaniard pretty much continued from where the struggling Welshman had left off, although his work-rate did help stem the flow of Ajax attacks.

Marco Asensio: 7/10

On for Benzema, Asensio scored almost immediately after being introduced. But, he did get his elusive goal late into the game, tapping in from Carvajal’s bending cross – a goal that hands Real Madrid a huge advantage before the second leg. Might have done enough to secure a start against Girona.

Mariano Diaz: N/A

On for the last ten minutes, Mariano barely had a look-in, although this cameo would have helped him continue building his sharpness.

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