The back-in-form Real Madrid should claim a first-leg lead against Ajax when they meet in the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday, says Andy Schooler...
"Eight of Real's last 10 games have been won, with the one loss coming in the second leg of a tie in which they were already 3-0 up."
Ajax v Real Madrid
BT Sport 3
The arrival of the Champions League knockout stage brings an end to Real Madrid's pre-season, it is said. Now things really matter.
The reigning three-time champions of Europe have undoubtedly taken time to get over the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo but in recent weeks, Santi Solari has got them clicking into gear again.
Eight of their last 10 games have been won, with the one loss coming in the second leg of a tie in which they were already 3-0 up. The draw was in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final with Barcelona, a tie they are favourites to win when it heads to the Bernabeu in a couple of weeks' time.
For the first time, post-Ronaldo, there is a vibrancy to their attack, the sort which has been feared across Europe for the past decade.
Karim Benzema is relishing being given the ball more often and has six goals in his last six games. He should be fit despite a recent neck problem.
Gareth Bale is fit and firing again, while out wide they have two form players in Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior.
Between them they are keeping Isco out of the side, which is no mean feat.
Real's recent run has reinvigorated their domestic campaign - they now trail leaders Barca by only six points with El Clasico rapidly approaching - and their pre-Christmas struggles seem a long time ago.
While Real stuttered through the group stage, Ajax performed above expectation, going unbeaten in a group which contained Bayern Munich (the pair played out two draws).
At home they were involved in a neck-and-neck title race with PSV Eindhoven but the winter break halted their momentum.
Since the restart, they've won just two of five games. Two were lost, including against Heracles at the weekend when several Ajax players were seen arguing among themselves on the pitch.
Perhaps the greatest concern given they are about to go up against such an attacking force is their defensive issues. They conceded four against Heerenveen and six to Feyenoord - the first time they had conceded four or more in back-to-back Eredivisie games since 1959.
To make matters worse, star man Frenkie De Jong, who signed for Barcelona in the January transfer window, is a doubt for this one, as is Argentine international Nicolas Tagliafico.
Keep it simple
The contrasting form points to Real Madrid and it looks like the best betting plan on this one is to keep things simple and back the visitors to win the game at [1.9].
Real have won 13 of their last 21 away games in the Champions League, while their record at this stage has been exceptional.
They've won the away leg of their last-16 ties in each of the last six seasons. This time last year Paris Saint-Germain were dismissed 2-1 and the season before it was a 3-1 win at Napoli.
The other results in the sequence: Roma (2-0), Schalke (2-0 and 6-1) and Manchester United (2-1).
Yes, Ronaldo played in all those matches and some were second legs, but look at the here and now and there are numerous reasons to suggest Real will win and it's worth siding with them to do so.
For the record, Ajax are offered at [4.0] and the draw at [4.3].
Real bring goals
As is nearly always the case with a Real Madrid game, the odds suggest there will be over 2.5 goals - [1.55] is the overs price and [2.72] the unders.
I've already mentioned the attacking talent but Real's (relative) defensive fragility remains - they have conceded in nine of their last 12 matches, a fact which certainly brings both teams to score into the equation at [1.56].
Ajax do carry goal threat - they scored three at home to Bayern in December - with ex-Southampton star Dusan Tadic currently in a rich vein of form.
He's netted 11 times in his last 12 games for the Dutch and has also pouched eight in 12 Champions League matches this term, Ajax being the only side left in who came through qualifying. He's 13/5 to score at any time.
Those who get superstitious around landmarks should note that this will be Sergio Ramos' 600th game and he's 16/5 to find the net.
The 600 factor is hardly the only reason for mentioning Ramos, however. The Real penalty taker and set-piece threat has 11 goals this season, a tally which already makes this the best goalscoring campaign for his career.
Same Game Multi
Tadic and Ramos are both worth considering for any Same Game Multi but I'm instead going to turn to some of the cards markets for some options here.
The aforementioned Tagliafico struggles to stay out of a ref's notebook and anyone who watched Argentina at the World Cup will know why; there were niggly fouls and late tackles aplenty.
Since joining Ajax, Tagliafico has been carded in 15 of his 41 games and notably he's been booked in seven of his 10 Champions League appearances this season.
He'll have Lucas Vazquez and Dani Carvajal to deal with in his left-back role so could easily receive a card at any time in this one.
Over 40 bookings points also looks good - that's happened in five of ref Damir Skomina's last seven Champions League matches.
With over 2.5 goals a reliable Real trait, the treble produces a price of 6.78.
Ten of Ajax's 11 goals in this season's Champions League have been scored in the second-half (91%). Meanwhile, 80% of goals conceded by the Dutch side have come from set-piece (four out of five).
Andy Schooler's P/L 2018/19
2pts Real Madrid to win @ 1.9