Friday 23 August 2019

Classy Ajax turn back clock to send Juventus reeling

Juventus 1 Ajax 2 (Ajax win 3-2 on aggregate)

Matthijs de Ligt celebrates after scoring the winner for Ajax. Photo: REUTERS/Alberto Lingria
Matthijs de Ligt celebrates after scoring the winner for Ajax. Photo: REUTERS/Alberto Lingria

Jack Pitt-Brooke in Turin

Ajax have now turned football on its head twice. And if you would bet against them doing it a third time next month and a fourth time in June then you should start paying attention.

This is the greatest story in the modern history Champions League because it is entirely at odds with every other page of it.

This is a historic club but a financially powerless one. David only killed one Goliath; Ajax have now done it twice.

Last month they beat triple champions Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabeu - a result applauded all over Europe in part because it felt like watching Halley's Comet, seeing a poor team outclass a rich team that comprehensively.

And last night, Ajax produced their second once-in-a-lifetime game, beating Juventus on their own patch, killing their second Goliath.

Ajax are now in the semi-finals for the first time since 1997, back when they could still compete with sides like Juventus as equals, not financial inferiors.

Ajax's Donny van de Beek equalises on the night. AP Photo/Antonio Calanni
Ajax's Donny van de Beek equalises on the night. AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

Easily

They could easily beat Tottenham or Manchester City over two legs if they play like this and they could win the Madrid final on 1 June too.

But regardless of whether Ajax go on to repeat what they last did in 1995, they have already done something far more important than simply winning a football competition. They have proved a point - twice.

Johan Cruyff famously once said Ajax should believe that they can beat richer clubs because, after all, he had never seen a bag of money score a goal.

Juventus goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: REUTERS/Alberto Lingria
Juventus goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: REUTERS/Alberto Lingria

It might have been flippant, unrealistic, and at odds with every development in football for 30 years. But it was also inspirational and this Ajax team have now lived up to that inspiration twice.

Ajax's wage bill is less than the richer Championship clubs, or Celtic, but they have turned that into a source of strength this season, taking points from Bayern Munich, doing the unthinkable to Real Madrid and now to Juventus, the team who paid Real £88m for Ronaldo last summer.

Ronaldo scored here, as he always does in the quarter-finals, giving Juventus a 2-1 aggregate lead. But that was his last contribution as Ajax seized control and never gave it back.

Donny van de Beek equalised, Matthijs De Ligt headed the winner, and Ajax missed plenty of chances in a second half that was just as good as their one in the Bernabeu.

Matthijs de Ligt heads in the Ajax winner in Turin. Photo: REUTERS/Massimo Pinca
Matthijs de Ligt heads in the Ajax winner in Turin. Photo: REUTERS/Massimo Pinca

Juventus begun with all of the force of a team desperate to crush an opponent who had gotten a little bit too big for their boots.

They pressed Ajax all over the pitch, smacking into every tackle, never letting them settle into the passing rhythm they found in Amsterdam.

Even Frenkie De Jong, the brilliant orchestrator last Wednesday, was effectively squeezed out of the game for the first 20 minutes.

But, after weathering the storm, Ajax started to play the better football, just as they did last week, getting a foothold in the Juventus half.

And, yet, it was Juventus who took the lead, Ronaldo heading in a Miralem Pjanic corner after finding himself free in the box.

Juventus fans can barely watch as they exit the Champions League. Photo: REUTERS/Massimo Pinca
Juventus fans can barely watch as they exit the Champions League. Photo: REUTERS/Massimo Pinca

It took Ajax only six minutes for to equalise. When Hakim Ziyech scuffed a shot from distance, it fell to Van de Beek, who looked offside but was played on by Federico Bernardeschi. The Juve defence stopped, Van de Beek carried on and slotted the ball past Wojciech Szczesny. A scrappy goal but quite in keeping with the first half.

At 1-1 the second half was there to be seized and there was an expectation Juventus would come out hard. But instead they walked straight into an Ajax flurry that floored them.

This was the Ajax that did for Real Madrid, brave, inventive and precise. Both full backs up, De Jong in charge, Dusan Tadic dropping deep with runners beyond him. Black shirts moving in fast harmony leaving the defenders frozen on the pitch.

Finally, after 20 minutes of daring, dominant football, De Ligt scored the winner. It was conventional move: Lasse Schone's outswining corner, De Ligt's big leap and strong neck, thumping the ball into the corner. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: The 'hell' of World Cup training camp, Ireland's half-back dilemma and All Blacks uncertainty

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport