Ajax pulled off one of the biggest shocks in recent Champions League history on Tuesday, thrashing Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabeu to overturn a 2-1 first-leg deficit and reach the last eight of the UEFA Champions League on a 5-3 aggregate triumph.
In far less dramatic circumstances, Tottenham also progressed, winning 1-0 away to Borussia Dortmund to complete a 4-0 aggregate win.
In Madrid, goals from Hakim Ziyech and David Neres had Ajax 2-0 up by halftime, and the only question then was whether it would rue the number of chances it had missed. But Dusan Tadic whipped in a third–after a lengthy VAR controversy–and, although Marco Asensio pulled one back, a stunning free kick from Lasse Schone sealed the famous win.
Spurs, meanwhile, withstood early pressure and made sure it went through with a Harry Kane goal four minutes after halftime to pile on Dortmund's recent stretch of misery.
Here are three thoughts on a memorable day in the Champions League:
A humiliating end to Real Madrid's reign
No side in Champions League history had ever lost the first leg of a knockout tie 2-1 at home and made it through. So confident was Sergio Ramos of progress, that he deliberately got himself booked in the first leg to trigger a suspension for the second so he would be free of the threat of missing a quarterfinal (never mind that his admission of that tactic cost him an extra game's ban). That Real Madrid, having won the tournament in each of the last three seasons, might not be in the last eight seemed like an impossibility.
Yet the first leg had not been comfortable. Ajax had played well, had been denied a goal by a contentious (if correct) VAR decision, had been a little unfortunate to lose. There seemed, on the outside, to be an assumption that it wouldn’t go to the Bernabeu and play like this. But its young side was brilliant, inflicting on Madrid a defeat for the ages. While its excellence should be celebrated, it equally can’t be ignored that Madrid was terrible as it slipped to a fourth consecutive home defeat.
Madrid offered a threat going forward, but at the back it was pitiful. Neres again and again got in behind Dani Carvajal down the Ajax left, while Tadic thrived in improbable spaces between the back four and the midfield line. The Barcelona-bound Frenkie De Jong meanwhile, kept picking the ball up deep and driving forward. Ajax, for long spells, just seemed tougher, quicker, more precise. Madrid was in shambles for much of the first half, threatening at times, but so open at the back it looked like conceding every time Ajax went forward. The astonishing thing was that, but for a couple of excellent saves from Thibaut Courtois and some wasted chances, the win could have been even more emphatic.
On a terrible night, Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior had to go off in the first half with injuries, while Gareth Bale was a passenger by the end after turning his ankle. The misery was completed when Nacho was sent off in injury time for a stamp. This was a hammering–and one that will almost certainly cost Santiago Solari his job.
Tadic steals the show on the Bernabeu stage
In the first week of March last year, Dusan Tadic was substituted during Southampton’s goalless draw against Stoke City. Twelve months on, the Serbian dazzled at the Bernabeu as Ajax produced a performance and a result to outstrip anything it has done in Europe since it reached the final 23 years ago–and perhaps before.
Starting in a notional center-forward position, Tadic was the architect of both goals, cutting the ball back for Ziyech and then sliding in Neres after a delicious run and pirouette.
This was a golden night for Tadic, one of those games when he always seemed in space, and his every pass seemed to have a path cleared before it. He was the master of geometry, a puppet-master unpicking Madrid seemingly at will. He created further chances for Neres in the first half and Donny van der Beek and Noussair Mazraoui in the second, before a chance fell his way after 62 minutes.
Receiving the ball from Van der Beek, Tadic swept the ball into the top corner from just outside the box, given Ajax breathing space. Or at least it did eventually, after a VAR review that took almost four minutes to decide the goal should be awarded. The issue was whether the ball had gone out of play before Ajax broke. One angle showed grass between the line and the ball, but it was unclear whether the edge of the ball might be overhanging the back of the line and, eventually, the goal was given.
This, after all, was Tadic’s night.
Ruthless Kane takes Tottenham through
After two defeats and an awkward draw in Saturday’s North London derby, Tottenham showed its character and fighting spirit to hold Dortmund at arm’s length. It’s never easy going into a second leg with a significant lead, and in the first half Tottenham found itself under pressure, grateful to Hugo Lloris for one excellent save.
But on the break it looked like a threat and Son Heung-min probably should have had a penalty when he was shoved in the back in his shooting stride. It was Kane, though, who scored the decisive goal, running on to Moussa Sissoko’s through-ball before applying a typically nerveless finish.
On another night, this was a performance that would have been praised for its professionalism. As it was, Tottenham’s progress was a footnote to Ajax’s extraordinary achievement.