Scintillating Ajax breathe life into Champions League

Just incredible. You couldn’t help but feel a little giddy watching Ajax Amsterdam pick apart Juventus in their 2-1 win on Tuesday night.

This was football how we imagine it in our daydreams. Fearless, inventive and gorgeous. Their journey to the Champions League semifinals, secured by the 3-2 aggregate win, is one of the most entertaining in recent memory and breathes new life into a competition that had begun to feel stale.

When Cristiano Ronaldo typically thrust himself in front of the defence to head in on the 28th minute such an outcome looked unlikely. How many times have we seen that exact movie? Teams routinely cow in the face of the Portuguese’s big game temperament. This was to be his next moment in a tournament that had become his narrative; his time to win a fourth consecutive title and do so with a third different club. Such has been the one-sided nature of European football that we accept someone else’s fantasies as our destiny.

Even when Donny van de Beek sneaked behind the defence to level matters in the 34th it appeared more fluke than anything.

Ajax, however, would come out after the break and produce 45 minutes of the finest football you’re likely to see this season. They tore through the famed Juve backline at will. David Neres, Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic interchanged endlessly up front. Their sudden darts past either full back left the Old Lady confused and their shape crooked.

Anytime Van de Beek pounced on a turnover he drove at the defence – creating space for that trident to pierce again.

It was no surprise then when 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt headed in from a corner in the 67 minute – it had been coming and the Dutch were perhaps unfortunate they hadn’t found the net earlier. De Ligt’s effort to get between two defenders was emblematic of the hunger both he and his team exhibited in spades.

Juventus were incapable of a reply. They seemed stunned by the sheer audaciousness of their lower profile opponents. Ajax weren’t just sitting back and waiting for a lucky break, they were taking the game to them! Frenkie de Jong and Lasse Schöne also did their jobs superbly, snuffing out any threat before it could ignite.

If the Italians did secretly underestimate Erik ten Hag’s team then the loss is completely deserved. Real Madrid, of course, had already learnt that lesson: Sergio Ramos hilariously getting himself intentionally suspended only to watch his side played off the field in the 4-1 loss at the Santiago Bernabeu.

With two massive scalps hanging from their belt, you couldn’t argue Ajax aren’t full worth for their semifinal spot. The last time they made it to this stage, 1997, their captain hadn’t even been born.

“Can we can go on to win the competition?” De Ligt asked rhetorically after the game. “Well, we are in the semi-finals now. And we have eliminated two of the favourites in the last two rounds. The next games will be very difficult, but so were these ones. So who knows? We don’t know what we can achieve but we are never satisfied. There’s so much potential in this team, we are all still quite young and you see us grow every game.”

For the neutral, this team has already achieved plenty. There’s actual excitement and expectation going into the semis. When’s the last time that we felt that anything could happen in this competition? This freakishly good young team has at least given us that much.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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