Saturday 17 August 2019

Ronaldo the big threat to Ajax hopes of a fairytale

Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: AP/PA Images
Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: AP/PA Images

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Ajax are in the unknown now and they want to keep going. Win this and they will be in their first Champions League semi-final since 1997, when they were beaten by Juventus, back then the reigning European champions. They won that title on penalties against Ajax the previous year but that was a different football generation.

This was before Bosman, before the rise of the Premier League, before international benefactor owners. Ajax were the dukes of the old order, an order that has been washed away by foreign money, largely channelled through England.

And they have had to build a new team from a position of weakness, made of players who only know about the glory days second-hand. Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong were not even born for the 1997 semis.

Even the players brought in last year to provide some experience are miles outside of their comfort zone. Dusan Tadic had never played in the Champions League before arriving at Ajax, the furthest Daley Blind got at Manchester United was the group stage, twice.

So all Ajax have to fall back on tonight in Turin is themselves and their ability. But the one thing they have shown this season is that they can beat any other team in the world on their day. What other lesson can you draw from their 4-1 win at the Bernabeu last month, against the team who had just won this unrepeatable competition three years in a row?

Even in other games that they did not win - the 2-1 home defeat to Real Madrid, the two group stage draws with Bayern Munich, last week's 1-1 draw in Amsterdam - Ajax showed how at home they are at this level.

They were better than Juventus in the first leg, dominating possession and creating enough chances to win. Frenkie De Jong was the best player on the pitch, and it was not even close.

Fearless

So the question ahead of tonight's game is whether Ajax can do this all over again. Can they play the same fearless Ajax football even in this, their biggest game for a generation? Can they push eight outfield players up the pitch, leaving only the centre-backs behind, without exposing themselves on the counter? In short, can they make up in quality and bravery what they lack in experience?

Because tonight Ajax are up against the team who has been here before more than almost anyone else. Juventus, of course, lost the 2015 and 2017 finals, and are desperate to go one better this year.

So desperate, in fact, that they added Cristiano Ronaldo - five-time Champions League winner - to a team that already knew how to handle itself in these occasions. Ronaldo has already made exactly the difference Juventus wanted.

The greatest match-winner in the history of this competition scored a second-leg hat-trick against Atletico Madrid - the best defence out there - to get Juventus into the quarters.

And he started and finished a counter-attack in Amsterdam to give Juventus an away goal they may well need tonight.

The last 10 years of the Champions League have been dominated by Ronaldo at the quarter-final stage: the header against Roma 2008, the long-ranger against Porto 2009, home and away against Atletico 2011, the hat-trick against Wolfsburg 2016, the clinical leadership against Bayern 2017, best of all the overhead kick against Juventus 2018.

So he will be relishing the chance to give himself yet another shot at the greatest trophy of them all. He does this every year, and he will be up against a side for whom all of this is new.

And yet as much as we lean on experience as a decider and predictor of games we know that it is not. If it was then Ajax would not even be here.

There is always a gap in football for surprises. Ajax just have to find their way through it.

Juventus v Ajax, Live, Virgin Media 1/BT Sport 3, 8.0

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