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'Messi or Ronaldo? I'd rather player with Ziyech!' - Ajax ace underlined potential against Madrid

18:00 EAT 15/02/2019
Hakim Ziyech Ajax Real Madrid
The 25-year-old Moroccan attacker showed against the Champions League holders why he has long been linked with a move to one of Europe's elite clubs
When Matthijs de Ligt was recently asked by Sky Sport Italia whether he'd prefer to play with Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo next season, the in-demand Dutch defender quipped: "I'd prefer to play with Hakim Ziyech at Ajax."

It may have been a joke but there is no denying that Ziyech has been a joy to behold of late, and most recently in Wednesday's Champions League last-16 clash with Real Madrid.

Ajax may have fallen to a 2-1 defeat in Amsterdam but their Moroccan attacker was a constant thorn in the side of the European champions.

Of course, his dynamic display didn't come as a surprise who have been watching him closely over the past 18 months. As Ajax coach Erik ten Hag had told those coming to see Ziyech for the first time, "If you love football, you'll love him."

Ziyech was deservedly named the best player in Netherlands last year, winning the Gouden Schoen award after creating an Eredivisie-high 15 goals, as well as scoring nine himself.

Yet, despite strong interest from several clubs – Roma were particularly keen – no move materialised, much to the surprise and relief of Ten Hag, who had effectively bid farewell to the 25-year-old last summer.

Thus, the visit of Madrid presented Ziyech with the chance to prove his worth on the game's grandest stage, with representatives from all of Europe's top clubs – including Juventus director Fabio Paratici, who was present to run the rule over De Ligt – having assembled at the Johan Cruyff Arena to observe the most exciting side Ajax have produced in two decades.

Ziyech lined up on the right flank but his role was always to bring the ball inside to link up with the revitalised Dusan Tadic and the Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong, whilst creating opportunities for his countryman, Noussair Mazraoui, to overlap.

When Ajax had spells of possession, Ziyech was given full license to move across the front-line as Tadic had been employed as a false 9.

The role of the hosts' inside forwards was to get into goalscoring positions and not hug the touchline. In the first 10 minutes alone, Ziyech twice popped up on the left, first firing a shot across the box, and then delivering a cross to the back post.

Ajax may have been beaten on the night but Real were unable to curb Ziyech's influence on the game. Indeed, he had 92 touches, more than any other attacking player.

Of course, his most notable contribution was his second-half equaliser but Ziyech had six shots in total, hitting the target with half of them, while he also completed five dribbles.

However, while he primarily caught the eye offensively, his role in Ajax's aggressive pressing game was arguably just as impressive.

He won two tackles and made three interceptions but much of his good work off the ball wasn't backed up by the statisticians.

One can be sure, though, that the scouts in attendance noted his overall defensive contribution, as Ziyech also repeatedly forced Madrid to play backwards or to rush forward passes into surrounded team-mates.

This display was more Bernardo Silva than Juan Mata in its intensity out of possession and would doubtless have impressed his numerous suitors.

Ziyech still has aspects of his game that he needs to work on, of course.

In a way, Real represented excellent opposition for him to show his many attributes – both offensive and defensive – because the European champions come to play, no matter the context of the game.

However, Ziyech has sometimes struggled against top teams with a strong and effective defensive game plan.

In the 2017 Europa League final, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side used aggressive man-marking to counter Ajax's attacking threat.

That night, Ander Herrera kept a very close eye on Ziyech, who was operating on the left-hand side of a midfield three.

Even when moving wide, dropping deep or playing higher up, he was unable to get away from Herrera, and his impact on that final proved minimal, as Ajax slumped to a tame 2-0 defeat.

On the limited evidence of Ziyech facing defensive opponents in the truly big games, he still has some developing to do.

Ten Hag, though, is in no doubt that the Morocco international would flourish in a tougher league.

"Aside from his technical qualities, it’s his footballing intelligence that makes him so strong," he explained.

"Would he maintain his performances abroad? If you’re the best in the Netherlands, I don’t think he’d have any problems."

Choosing the right club is obviously key. As well as Roma, he has also been linked with Liverpool, Everton and Borussia Dortmund – sides that play different games.

That list of interested parties will lengthen, though, if Ziyech proves himself the real deal at the Santiago Bernabeu on March 5.

The bottom line is De Ligt is unlikely to be playing alongside Ziyech next season; he won't be at Ajax beyond the summer.

But it's unlikely Ziyech will be either.