Emerging Ajax dominate but Ronaldo finds vital away goal for Juventus
Ajax 1-1 Juventus
The greatest Champions League knockout win of the century was no fluke. One month on from gleefully dethroning Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, Ajax outplayed another of Europe's biggest, richest super-clubs.
They dominated possession against Juventus here, went behind to a Cristiano Ronaldo header but came straight back through David Neres' solo brilliance. If either side deserved to win it was them.
Anyone who says that 1-1 is a bad first leg result for Ajax should remember that they lost 2-1 here to Real Madrid in the last round before humiliating the triple champions at the Santiago Bernabeu. Who knows what will happen in Turin next Tuesday but anyone writing off Erik Ten Hag's young side has been wilfully not paying attention to recent events.
Because this Ajax team may still be trophyless but it is in the midst of doing something more important than that: proving a point. 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. It might have been flippant, unrealistic, and almost madly at odds with every development in football for 30 years. But it was also inspirational, and this Ajax team are living up to that inspiration.
Ajax's wage bill is less than the richer Championship clubs, or Celtic, but they have turned that into a source of strength in recent years. Already this year they have taken points off Bayern Munich in the group stage, knocked out Real Madrid, and now they go to Turin knowing a win or a big score draw would claim another scalp. And they have done all this with a cohort of academy products who look preternaturally confident on the biggest stages in the club game.
That was true of how Ajax began this game. They knew what they had to do, and that was live up to the values of the club. They had to play with bravery and ambition and style, not showing a gram of excessive respect to their Italian opponents. And that is exactly what they did. This was classic Ajax, as they seized control of the ball from the start and never gave it back. All night the only openings Juventus had were on the break.
Ajax moved the ball around cleverly, especially when it went through Frenkie De Jong, their precocious 21-year-old capable of doing everything on the pitch. He took the ball off goalkeeper Andre Onana and tried to start attacks but the man responsible for trying to finish them was Hakim Ziyech, their explosive individualist drifting in from the right.
Three times in the first half he shot dangerously from distance, once into the side-netting, twice forcing Wojciech Szczesny to save.
What Ajax really needed to do was to get in behind Juventus, but they only did that once, creating a chance they would regret missing: Dusan Tadic got in down the right and pulled the ball back to Donny van de Beek, whose shot faded away from the post at the worst possible moment.
Juventus had only offered warning glimmers of their danger on the break. Federico Bernadeschi had got in on the break and been denied by brilliant challenges from De Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. But Juventus must have known that they could punish Ajax for their openness if they just got the ball to the right man.
Ronaldo had barely touched the ball in the first half but it did not matter when he rolled a pass out to Joao Cancelo and started to run, sensing a gap he could exploit, alert to the danger before anyone else. Cancelo chipped the ball back and by now Ronaldo had so much momentum that when he headed the ball it whistled into Onana but straight into the net.
That was the last touch of the first half, and it felt like Ajax colliding with inevitability, with the man who has decided more games in this competition than anyone else.
But the first move of the second half was a reminder that any good player can make a difference if they just put their mind to it.
When David Neres picked up the ball out wide on the left everyone waited for a pass but instead he cut inside, drove at goal, and then whipped a shot beyond Szczesny into the far corner. It was a goal of audacity, imagination and skill, a classical Ajax moment. If Ronaldo's goal killed the atmosphere then Neres' goal doubled it. Suddenly Ajax had the momentum to play their game braver than ever: everyone up, full-backs high and wide, moving the ball from side to side, trying to find a way through. They could never quite get it right, their touches just off.
The closest they came was Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, the 19-year-old on as a late substitute, he found space just inside the area but Szczesny could parry it away. There was still time for Douglas Costa, a Juventus sub of higher calibre, to race down the other end and hit the post, Juventus' only real attack of a subdued second half. But the game finished wholly in the balance. Which given the imbalance between the two clubs is quite something.
Independent News Service