Unfazed Ajax continue to not give a toss about team’s Status, as Juve find out
More and more Ajax ring those Johan Cruyff’s words aloud. ‘I’ve never seen a bag of money score goals’, said the late Ajax legend, and his former side continue to emphasise that in this season’s Champions League. Although, in the case of Erik Ten Hag’s side, it’s more like ‘you and your bag of money don’t faze us’.
After knocking out Real Madrid in the last 16, in the most thrilling and entertaining way one can, the quarter-final draw pitted the Dutch side with Juventus. Juve had wrested themselves from the brink of elimination at the hands of Atletico Madrid to just about being favourites for the competition. The Old lady had Cristiano Ronaldo, the Champions League machine that devours all before him on the continent, and a wealth of experience. Ajax wouldn’t be daunted, but Juve were still very much favourites.
The Italian champions were still favourites after the first leg, after a 1-1 draw in Amsterdam gave them an away goal, and 28 minutes into the second, they had a rather proper lead. Yet, Ajax, as they showed in both legs against Real Madrid, proved a tough test in the first leg in Amsterdam. And here in Turin, they had no interest in cowering, or playing anecdote to any potential story of Juve ending their wait to win the Champions League.
They found themselves level before halftime. In fact, their equaliser came just six minutes after Ronaldo had put Juventus in front, via Donny van de Beek, who was imperious all night. Young skipper Matthijs De Ligt put Ajax in front with less than 25 minutes to go. That meant Juve had to score twice without reply to go through, but they could barely mount any pressure, and Ajax weren’t deterred. In fact, it was quite a mystery how Ten Hag’s side hadn’t added to their advantage by then, given the chances they created.
Like they did at the Bernabeu, Ajax didn’t sit back, or nervously try to run the clock down. Rather, they bossed the game, even when their more illustrious opponents had the greater urgency, and only the offside flag (rightly) denied them a third. That means in the space of just over a month, they’ve won at the home of Real Madrid and Juventus, two teams who have appeared in a combined six finals in the past five seasons.
If the win at Real Madrid came with the caveat of Los Blancos having a tumultuous season, there is no ‘yeah, well’ or ‘yeah, but’ to this triumph in Turin. There’s even the added credit of seeing off the Italians, while missing their first-choice left (Nicolas Tagliafico), with his replacement (Noussair Mazraoui) lasting only 11 minutes. Ajax are thrilling, brave, adventurous, and likeable. They’ve shown those qualities since the group stage, when they were unlucky to not beat Bayern Munich in both meetings in the group stage, and as they prepare for a first semi-final since 1997, they do so with confidence and swagger.
The future of this Ajax team is still pretty much non-existent, together, that is. Frenkie de Jong will join Barcelona when this season ends, De Ligt is likely to depart as well, while David Neres, Hakim Ziyech and goalkeeper Andre Onana have turned the heads of bigger and richer sides.
But, they say the future isn’t promised, the present is all we truly have. And right now, Ajax’s present is a joy to behold. Now, their combination of bravery and flair is more than impressive. Now, their recognition of no status is thrilling. Now, they are potentially three games away from the unfathomable.