AMSTERDAM: Real Madrid against Ajax would typically be a clash of stars against prodigies, but when they face each other in the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday, the difference will be harder to distinguish.
Ajax will have their latest crop of young gems at the Johan Cruyff Arena, where Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt will attempt to live up to already-swelling reputations while the likes of Donny van de Beek, Andre Onana and Kasper Dolberg could also enhance theirs.
The surprise is less that Ajax’s line-up will be sprinkled with emerging talents than the expectation Madrid’s will be too.
Gareth Bale aside, the galacticos are gone, replaced by a handful of prospects trying to forge their own way through, only at the biggest and most demanding club in the world.
The shift was not so much initiated by the current coach Santiago Solari, whose predecessors Zinedine Zidane and Julen Lopetegui both used youth when they had to, primarily to rest key players or remind them their place was not guaranteed.
But in the biggest games, Zidane and Lopetegui were drawn to experience, while Solari has made youth first choice since being tasked with rejuvenating his team in November.
Vinicius Junior has had less time than Ajax’s De Jong, with only six starts in La Liga and one in the Champions League, but his impact has been arguably just as dramatic, the hype around the Brazilian already comparable.
Signed last summer for 45 million euros, Vinicius was supposed to spend his debut season settling in with the reserve side, a strategy adhered to, perhaps too rigidly, by Lopetegui.
“He’s very young and has just arrived in Europe,” Lopetegui said. “He’s very keen to learn and we’ve got to give him the time to settle that every player needs.”
Solari, in charge of Real Madrid B at the time, was the coach that received him, witnessing first-hand as the 18-year-old scored twice against Atletico B, curled in a free-kick against Unionistas and equalised against Celta Vigo B.
Vinicius was raw but when Lopetegui was sacked, Solari had greater legitimacy to promote him. He had faith too. Solari gave Vinicius 90 minutes in his first match in charge, more than Lopetegui had in all 14 of his.
Almost four months on, Vinicius has 22 appearances for the first team, the latest pair against Barcelona at the Camp Nou and Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In both, he was Madrid’s greatest threat, to the extent that even Bale’s starting spot has been questioned.
“His adaptation has been very fast,” Solari said. “He is 18 and he has adapted to a new country, a new culture, a different type of football. He has shown his talent but we have to take care of him.”
Vinicius is the poster boy of Solari’s meritocracy, an approach that puts reputation far below humility and hard work.
Among those to lose out have been Isco, who is yet to start a league game under Solari, and Marcelo, whose form deteriorated at the start of the year. Casemiro has also been relegated to the bench.
Among the fresh faces to come in have been Sergio Reguilon at left back, the Spanish 22-year-old with a wand of a left foot, Marcos Llorente in defensive midfield, and Dani Ceballos, who could make the transition after Luka Modric slightly easier to bear.
Together, Vinicius, Reguilon, Llorente and Ceballos have played 64 games since Solari was appointed. “They are the future of Real Madrid,” Solari said. “Therefore, they have to be part of the present.”
But the present is now a strenuous few weeks when Madrid’s season could be defined by matches against the best opponents, both in La Liga and Europe.
Jorge Valdano who, like Solari, played for Real Madrid, coached the youth side and then managed first team, said last month that youngsters should ideally be introduced gradually, allowed to bed in while more experienced players shoulder the responsibility.
Solari has had to fast-track his fledglings and so far that faith has been rewarded. Ajax, and the Champions League knock-out stages, is the next test.
POCHETTINO FACES DEFINING MOMENT
Mauricio Pochettino faces a defining moment in his Tottenham reign as the in-demand Argentine tries to keep his bid for a first major prize alive against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.
Pochettino has taken to defending his failure to win silverware in almost five years at Tottenham by insisting he values qualification for Europe’s elite club competition more highly than success in the domestic cups.
But for all of Pochettino’s protestations that reaching the Champions League is his primary goal, that claim rings a little hollow when they never make it to the business end of the tournament.
Tottenham have never been past the last 16 of either the Champions League or the Europa League since Pochettino arrived from Southampton in May 2014.
Now Bundesliga leaders Dortmund, who visit Wembley for the Champions League last-16 first leg on Wednesday, stand between Pochettino and his first European quarter-final in what could his last season with the north London club.
Pochettino, yet to win a trophy in his managerial career, has been strongly linked with a move to Manchester United at the end of the season.
If that mooted deal may now be less of a sure thing given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s remarkable impact as interim boss at Old Trafford, there is little doubt Pochettino will still be a man in demand, with Real Madrid also believed to be interested in his services.
Derided as serial underachievers when they struggled to break into the Premier League’s top four, Pochettino has made Tottenham into Champions League mainstays capable of ruffling the feathers of Europe’s aristocracy.
“We feel so proud and with all the circumstances the team is doing fantastically, the performance of the squad is unbelievable,” Pochettino said.
“We are showing great character and very good quality, fighting against big sides and being in a position that’s very close to the top.
“We hope to keep going in the same direction, to fight for big things.”
But for all their undoubted growth in the Pochettino era, there remains a nagging feeling of unfulfilled potential about Tottenham, who have won only three cups in the past 28 years.
Failure to land a big prize with the generation of Tottenham stars he has cultivated so astutely, including Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-min, would be considered a missed opportunity.
Tottenham have finished in the Premier League’s top three for the past three seasons and they retain an outside chance of winning the title this campaign.
But their poor record in domestic cups under Pochettino is a significant blemish and Tottenham’s European exploits have been equally confounding.
Pochettino’s first season featured a tame Europa League last-32 defeat against Fiorentina and the following year they were outclassed by Dortmund in the last 16 of the same competition.
His maiden voyage in the Champions League was even more rocky as Tottenham failed to qualify from the group stage.
Finally hitting their stride last season, Spurs enjoyed a memorable 3-1 win over European champions Real Madrid in the group stage and they also drew in Madrid and twice beat Dortmund.
But as the pressure mounted Tottenham melted, blowing the lead in the last-16 second leg against Juventus as two second-half goals sent them crashing out.
Vexed by mounting criticism following recent exits from the FA and League Cups, Pochettino said chairman Daniel Levy told him his brief was to finish in the top four while the club build their long-delayed stadium.
Although Spurs look set for another top-four finish, it would still be a source of angst among Tottenham fans if Pochettino departs without lifting a single trophy.