Substitute Asensio strikes late, Real Madrid beat Ajax 2-1

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Ajax's Nicolas Tagliafico, second right, heads the ball past Real Madrid defenders during the first leg, round of sixteen, Champions League match between Ajax and Real Madrid at the Johan Cruyff ArenA in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Wednesday Feb. 13. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico, second right, heads the ball past Real Madrid defenders during the first leg, round of sixteen, Champions League match between Ajax and Real Madrid at the Johan Cruyff ArenA in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Wednesday Feb. 13. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Amsterdam (AP) — With a little help from the video assistant referee, defending champions Real Madrid overcame a spirited Ajax to win the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 match 2-1 on Wednesday and take a big step toward the quarterfinals.

Substitute Marco Asensio scored a late winner to put Madrid in a strong position going into the second leg on March 5.

Real, winners of the last three Champions Leagues, recovered in the second half after being outplayed by underdogs Ajax before the break at a packed Johan Cruyff Arena, when the hosts had a goal disallowed by VAR – the first time the video referee had overturned a Champions League goal.

Asensio, a 73rd-minute substitute, was unmarked at the far post as he tapped in a cross from the right by Dani Cavajal with just three minutes of regulation time to go.

“He’s shown his development as a player,” Madrid coach Santiago Solari said. “He did everything he had to do from the moment he came into the pitch. Not only the goal, which of course was very important for us.”

Ajax had looked on course for a draw when Hakim Ziyech shot under Thibaut Courtois in the 75th minute to cancel out Karim Benzema’s opener 15 minutes earlier.

The Amsterdam team went into Wednesday’s match in something of a form crisis since the Dutch league’s winter break. Their previously solid defence crumbled late last month in a 6-2 defeat to archrival Feyenoord and Erik ten Hag’s team slumped to a 1-0 defeat on Saturday to Heracles Almelo.

But Ajax shook off their winter form dip before the break, pressing Madrid high up the pitch, combining well with slick, short passes and looking like the team that qualified second in their group behind Bayern Munich rather than the one that struggled in recent weeks.

“We have to improve,” Ten Hag said. “Normally you don’t create so many chances against a top team like Madrid. We did, but you have to be more ruthless. There we can learn from Madrid — they created less chances but scored more goals.”

Real went into the match brimming with confidence from a run of six wins and one draw in their last seven matches. But they only really hit their stride in the second half, proving more clinical in front of goal.

Ajax, four-time European champions, looked to have taken the lead only to have VAR rule out Nicolas Tagliafico’s 37th minute header because Dusan Tadic was in an offside position and impeding Courtois.

Ten Hag was not convinced by the video images he saw.

“I did not see offside and couldn’t see a foul on the keeper,” he said.

Solari said he had not seen the images.

Kasper Dolberg came close to levelling again in stoppage time, but Courtois stuck out a hand to block his effort as Madrid captain Sergio Ramos was made to work hard for the win in his 600th match for the club.