Champions League: Team Real Madrid are young & hungry
Coach Santiago Solari pins faith on emerging stars as Real Madrid face Ajax tonight
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 tonight, 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 on the rise
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, 18, was supposed to spend his debut season settling in with the reserve side. Almost four months on, Vinicius has 22 appearances for the first team, the latest pair against Barcelona at the Camp Nou and Atletico Madrid.
In both, he was Madrid's greatest threat, to the extent that even Bale's starting spot has been questioned. Solari 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.
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