Real Madrid vs. Ajax: 4 Things to Take Away from Final Group D Clash
Group of Champions, huh? Apparently not all champions are made the same.
Now that all six matches have been played, the greatly hyped Group of Death looks more like a two-horse race than the hotly contested group it was supposed to be.
Frank de Boer's men were never really in this one. They finished with 60 percent of possession, but were outgunned by 20 shots to 12, with nine on target for Madrid and just four for Ajax.
De Boer's men didn't even manage a single shot on goal in the first half and had no answer for Los Merengues' fast counterattack.
The result had no effect on the final standings or in deciding which teams would move on, but that doesn't mean that nothing was learned.
Let's review a few key talking points to take away from Group D's final match between Real Madrid and Ajax.
Modric Has a Future with Madrid
When Real Madrid decided to (temporarily) ship Nuri Sahin to England just to bring in Luka Modric—a player similar to the Turk—many thought the move was unnecessary.
While the Croatian has not been spectacular overall this season, he showed against Ajax that he can be the versatile playmaker Madrid will need over the next few years.
What Los Merengues need in midfield is someone who could eventually replace Xabi Alonso while also adding a creative spark to aid Mesut Ozil in the middle.
Modric does both of those things, and he proved it against the Dutch champions. He was the best player on the pitch and had his best performance for the Spanish capital's club.
Modric—The heir of Alonso...
The 27-year-old completed 90 percent of his passes, spraying the ball all over the pitch, executing counters, making some great tackles, getting far forward in attack and putting other players through on goal all night long.
Modric looked like Alonso's copycat on long, overhead passes like the one he sent to Jose Callejon for the forward's first goal.
Or the heir to Ozil?
He worked extremely well with Kaka in midfield, allowing the Brazilian to roam all over the final third, which freed up tons of space for the wide men while giving them multiple outlets from midfield.
In that respect, Modric did exactly what I recently suggested Ozil needs to be allowed to do with Kaka. He also looked better in this match than his German teammate has for most of the season.
Of course, Madrid's latest signing is not going to replace the most creative player on the team, especially since Ozil is still young and Modric is better in a deeper role.
If the two could learn to work together and not stay too constricted in midfield, Mourinho could have a new trio to use in front of the double pivot—with Modric replacing Di Maria in some cases.
Castilla Bearing Fruit, but Will He Stay in Madrid?
With Barcelona's La Masia finally reaping the rewards of a decade of internal planning while their rivals field a team full of established stars, Real Madrid's youth academy comparatively underrated.
I wrote a piece discussing how great Castilla actually is, even if the results of such great player development are not usually seen in Madrid.
Right now Madrid is definitely still a team composed of Galacticos that prefers to send its youth products out rather than utilize them, but UEFA's new Financial Fair Play regulations could see the club shift to a more internal approach in the coming years.
There are currently a few young players making the case for just that. A few of them were on display against Ajax, in fact.
The fruits of labor
Jose Callejon, Nacho Fernandez, Alvaro Morata and Jose Rodriguez all featured in the final Group D match. They are some of the brightest young stars to come out of Castilla in the last few years.
Callejon scored a pair of goals, while Morata, while unspectacular overall, continued to show signs of becoming a great forward who can create goals as easily as score them.
Nacho also had a fine showing and looked nothing like the defensive liability he was before joining the senior side.
Castilla makes history
Jose Rodriguez had the shortest stint, but will certainly have the greatest legacy from this match. The 17-year-old's name has now been etched over that of club legend Raul.
Against Ajax—a club still deservedly renowned for its fantastic youth academy—Rodriguez became the youngest Real Madrid player to ever feature in a Champions League match.
Chances are that most of the great young Castilla products will find themselves being shipped out within a few years, but that would not make them a failure.
As the likes of Juan Mata, Roberto Soldado, Javi Garcia, and Alvaro Negredo have proven, Madrid has never had a problem producing elite talent.
It's just that difficult to hold down a place at the historic club.
Angel Di Maria Needs to Get Going ASAP
One Madrid player who is not in great form this season is Angel di Maria. His drop in form over the last 12 months is a bit surprising.
The Argentinian was on track to obliterate Xavi's assist record before getting injured last season. Since coming back last spring, however, the winger has rarely been even close to the same player.
I recently discussed how Di Maria's form may even be hurting Mesut Ozil, and therefore, the entire team.
Still deserving of a start?
With the great play from Jose Callejon, Kaka, and Luka Modric, it will get increasingly harder for Jose Mourinho to justify starting Di Maria every week.
His greatest value to the club is as a pacy winger who excels in Madrid's very fast counterattack while being a big threat from out wide with little time on the ball.
The South American also works hard to win the ball and often tracks back, but he is simply less valuable against stout defensive teams or when Madrid hold lots of possession.
Di Maria's stock is down
The 24-year-old has always been streaky and inconsistent, but this season he has been even more selfish and wasteful than usual.
While he is still the most dangerous wide man in Madrid's counterattack, Callejon showed against Ajax that the superiority of Di Maria may not be as great as it once was.
On his game, the winger is extremely useful and is a technically-gifted and intelligent player who should only get better and more versatile going forward.
There is no doubt that he can rebound and grow into a more consistently top-class player, but right now he is not earning his role in the starting lineup and needs to have a run of good form soon.
In Perspective, This Win Wasn't Too Impressive and Means Little
Real Madrid showed the world that while the reigning Dutch champions are a formidable opponent, they are just nowhere near the level of Spain's titleholders.
This match was never even a contest, really. Ajax may have won the possession battle, but the hosts were the better club by a large margin.
Madrid's counterattack was executed almost flawlessly all night, with the Dutch defenders habitually either caught too far out of position or forced to just foul players in a last-ditch effort to stop them.
Perspective is key
While dominating a top club like Ajax is impressive, the recent history of this non-rivalry shows that it is to be expected at this point.
The Spaniards have now won the last six contests and have won the last four meetings by a score of 14-1.
The match meant almost nothing for Madrid, and Ajax clinched a Europa League spot in the end, despite their loss.
Los Merengues should leave this match feeling confident, especially after also winning the Madrid Derby last weekend.
However, this win does not mean the champs have returned to top form. They need to play at this level consistently and avoid dropping points in the coming weeks.