Football

Solari the man for Real job, says Mijatovic

Former Los Blancos striker impressed with coach's youth-infused team selections

Predrag Mijatovic is convinced that Santiago Solari is the right man to lead Real Madrid to more glory.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE ROUND OF 16, FIRST LEG
AJAX AMSTERDAM REAL MADRID

The former Real striker, who played and scored in a Champions League final at the Johan Cruyff Arena, where Los Blancos will face Ajax Amsterdam in the last-16, first-leg tie of the same tournament tomorrow morning (Singapore time), said Solari chooses his line-ups wisely, with youth a prominent feature.

"Solari is proving to be a coach who can lead this team," Mijatovic told Radio Marca.

"He has made some difficult decisions and he plays the line-up that he considers to be best. I thought Gareth Bale would play at the Nou Camp and I was surprised to see him opt for Vinicius Junior instead ."

Solari has made youth first choice since being tasked with rejuvenating his team in November.

Vinicius has had less time than Ajax's Frenkie 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 (S$69m), Vinicius was supposed to spend his debut season settling in with the reserve side, a strategy adhered to, perhaps too rigidly, by Solari's predecessor Julen Lopetegui.

Solari, in charge of Real Madrid B at the time, was the coach who 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, AFP reported.

Almost four months on, Vinicius has 22 appearances for the first team, the latest pair against Barcelona at the Nou Camp and Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In both, he was Real'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."

The new-look Real have hit form at the right time and Mijatovic believes that they have started this pivotal month in the best possible way.

"Real Madrid are getting better every day," he said.

"February has started with a very good match against Barcelona and another very good performance against Atletico Madrid. Now comes the Champions League and I really want to watch the game."

Huntelaar believes underdogs Ajax can overcome Real

Huntelaar believes underdogs Ajax can overcome Real
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. PHOTO: AFP

Striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is confident that underdogs Ajax Amsterdam can upset the odds and defeat Real Madrid in the Champions League last-16, first-leg tie tomorrow morning (Singapore time).

The 35-year-old knows a thing or two about Real, having moved to the Spanish giants in the second half of the 2008-09 season from Ajax.

"If we play like we played earlier this season in the Champions League, we can make it very difficult for Real Madrid," the Holland international told De Telegraaf.

"But, at first hand, they are the favourites. We will be satisfied only if we qualify for the next round.

"It's more realistic to think they will make it, but that's not the way we think, because this is our chance to make history."

It was a much realistic possibility when the Champions League draw was made two months ago, when the Eredivise club were in imperious form.

But, since returning from the winter break, Ajax have won only twice in five outings, including a 6-2 defeat by Feyenoord, and slipped six points off the pace in the Dutch championship, Reuters reported.

The most recent defeat was against Heracles Almelo last Saturday. It was only the second time Ajax had been beaten by the provincial team.

Said captain Matthijs de Ligt: "We cannot afford to play against Real as we did against Heracles. If we do so, we will be slaughtered. For Ajax to be outplayed by Heracles is scandalous."

To make matters worse for the Dutch side, midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who is heading to Barcelona in an 86-million euro (S$132m) deal at the end of the season, is a doubt for tomorrow's clash after exacerbating an adductor injury in the game against Heracles.

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