We write to you with elbows tucked, stroopwafels out — and a new understanding of what’s possible in soccer. Just half of the second-leg games in the Champions League’s round of 16 are complete, and already two titans of the sport are gone thanks to a youthful rebellion and instant replay. The prediction models are as surprised as the rest of us.
First, to Real Madrid’s dismantling Tuesday. Coming into the second leg of its tie against Ajax, Madrid led 2-1 and had a 75 percent chance of moving on in a tournament the club has won four of the past five years. Ajax was technically better than Madrid in the first leg, and our model gave the Dutch team some respect as a result. But it’s one thing to be Madrid’s equal and another to beat it 4-1 at the Bernabeu, exposing seemingly each of Los Blancos’ flaws since they lost Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus at the end of last season. Led by homegrown phenoms Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax played the platonic ideal of free-flowing soccer, pirouetting through the midfield and capitalizing on Madrid’s missing captain, Sergio Ramos, who purposely got himself booked at the end of the first leg so he could be fresh (and cardless) for the quarterfinals. Instead of living to fight another day, Ramos serves as a cautionary tale.
Ajax’s win was surprising; Manchester United’s was almost inconceivable. Heading into its second leg against Paris Saint-Germain, Man U had just a 3 percent chance of moving on — and its play on Wednesday showed why. United lost the possession game 72 percent to 28 percent and trailed substantially in shots. This did not appear to be a team that could overcome a 2-0 deficit from the first leg. Yet PSG gifted Man U two goals on defensive errors and could manage only one first-half goal of its own, putting United just one goal from winning on away goals. But Man U couldn’t gain much possession, let alone break through for a goal. But then the replay gods took pity. In the 90th minute, United’s Diogo Dalot fired the ball in the general direction of PSG’s goal, and PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe leapt to block it once it had crossed into the box. His elbow came with him, and as it separated from his chest, it knocked into the ball. The referees initially called a corner but then went to video review. The (controversial) judgment changed the call to a handball. A penalty shot was awarded, and Marcus Rashford converted it for a tie-breaking third road goal. The final whistle blew a few minutes later, and Manchester United had somehow pulled off a miracle.
Two other games happened, we’ve been told. Porto had its own late drama Wednesday against Roma, including another penalty awarded on video review; the Portuguese squad wasn’t favored to move on heading into the match. And on Tuesday, Tottenham finished off Borussia Dortmund as calmly as Harry Kane finishes his penalty kicks.
All of this leaves some havoc in our projections, and we still have four games to go in this round. Buckle up, and please keep your elbows inside the vehicle at all times.
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