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Ajax’s win over Real Madrid was spectacular, but don’t call it an upset

Past accomplishments don’t matter. The better team won at the Bernabeu.

Real Madrid v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Ajax’s 4-1 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu will justifiably be remembered as one of the greatest results in the history of the UEFA Champions League. But it should not be remembered as an upset.

Real Madrid, having sold and not replaced Cristiano Ronaldo over the summer, have looked nothing like three-time defending European champions this season. They were lucky to escape from Amsterdam with a 2-1 lead, and their failure in back-to-back Copa del Rey and La Liga Clásicos against Barcelona led to press conferences in which players and coaches openly criticized each other. Madrid, unsurprisingly, started Tuesday’s match looking flat.

And Ajax, whether due to their knowledge of Madrid’s sinking morale, their own stated principles about attacking football, or both, aggressively attacked from the first whistle at the Bernabeu. Donny van de Beek pressured Madrid’s midfield like a wolverine, while fullbacks Noussair Mazraoui and Nicolás Tagliafico bombed forward fearlessly. They looked like they knew they were the better team; Real Madrid looked slow and lazy.

Los Merengues’ defense practically stood and watched Ajax score the opener.

And they were thoroughly embarrassed by Dušan Tadić on the second.

Tadić, not long ago a bit-part player at Southampton, spent the entirety of the match looking to embarrass Madrid defenders at every opportunity. He showed more brazen disrespect for his opponents than anyone else, but the entire Ajax attack looked to nutmeg or sit down as many Madrid players as they could.

Ajax scored a third goal to solidify their lead, and Madrid responded to give their fans some false hope, leading into the best moment of the match. Lasse Schöne stuck the dagger in this era of Real Madrid with an outrageous free kick that he absolutely meant to score. Don’t question it.

We might not have much more time to enjoy this Ajax team. De Jong has already been sold to Barcelona, while just about everyone else in the squad will be the subject of bids from clubs in bigger leagues than the Netherlands’ Eredivisie this summer. They will be offered wages that Ajax cannot possibly hope to match, and for that reason they will ask to leave, and Ajax will likely be willing to negotiate. This squad, as we know it today, will not have the chance to compete for a Champions League title next season.

But just because Ajax are a young team, likely to be broken up this summer, playing away to the holders of the Champions League, does not mean this was an upset. Ajax played as if they were supposed to win, and they outclassed Real Madrid. The crests on the shirts and the previous accomplishments of the teams don’t matter. Ajax are currently a better team than Real Madrid and seriously earned their Champions League quarterfinals.