Sign up, and select ‘use a promo code’ in the drop-down list in the Cashier and enter SPORTS20. 20 sports bonus will be credited immediately. Cashed out bets do not contribute. For new customers from the UK only. La Liga and the Spanish national team. As the dust from that dust-up in Amsterdam settles there’s a statistic that tells a very big story about Real Madrid after their 2-1 win against Ajax in the Champions League. I only recur to dry numbers because in such a dramatic, picturesque, history-evoking football match there are a myriad of people stories which, I think, will obscure something important. In Madrid’s last 10 matches, across the Copa del Rey, La Liga and now the Champions League, five hugely important goals for Santi Solari’s team have come from substitutes who’ve just entered the play. Against Ajax, Alaves, Betis, Espanyol and Atletico, Los Blancos’ “seventh cavalry” who get a late chance from their manager have been: Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale twice, Mariano and Dani Ceballos. In the Netherlands on Wednesday night, it was Asensio — sharp, confident and on the end of Dani Carvajal’s cross.
What’s more, Solari’s squad is not fully functioning yet. Marcelo stubbornly remains a few pounds above his fighting weight and Marcos Llorente injured again, then the European champions would not only be at full strength, they’d be full of strength too. Here’s something else, too: During those past 10 games Madrid have scored nine goals after the 75th minute — the vast majority have come after the 80th minute. That kind of performance is always, without exception, a marker of a team which isn’t just physically fit but also unified, which is mentally strong and which has a belief system that ends with: “We’re going to score. You can keep your “Ajax were unlucky” narratives. It sounds nice, it stokes the imagination given how seriously motivated the underdogs were prematch but, in fact, they squandered a good performance. It wasn’t that Madrid were lucky, they did what they are very good at: Rope-a-dope. Even if this is a Real Madrid sans Cristiano Ronaldo, the fact is that they still lure you in, take blows to the body and chin and then come back out in a hail of haymakers, painful jabs and, generally, put you on the canvas. Each of the teams listed above have, over the past few seasons, had the same complaints as Ajax will have. We thought we were on top.
Madrid weren’t really playing like European champions. To do it time after time after time requires special talent, special attitude, complete self belief and, yes, some slivers of luck here and there. There was fortune when Dusan Tadic hit the bar instead of scoring, but none when VAR took away what looked like the opening goal. With the benefit of video-assisted refereeing there’s now no doubt at all that Tadic was both offside and interfering with play when the ball was headed home. The human referee missed it, the machine didn’t. This is the way we roll now and it’s for the better. But what mustn’t be ignored is that this beautiful game brought us something that computers and machines and A. While Solari’s calm, smart revolution has been chastising the naughty boys and gradually coaxing fitness out of both tired and injured footballers until a crescendo is arriving, his keynote achievement has been the handling of Vinicius Junior. How on earth did poor old Julen Lopetegui not see it before results and performances cost him the sack?
It’s not the talent I’m talking about — you know that much by now I reckon. He’s a phenomenon for a combination of reasons that go beyond talent. With him, Madrid have become an extraordinary counter-attack team. Think back to the breakthrough goal in Amsterdam. The Ballon D’Or Winner is literally holding him off with one arm and using the other for balance so as to stay upright. He’s heading towards Real Madrid’s goal. But because Modric is Modric, like a scrambling but daring quarterback, he gets the pass away.