By Jack Pitt-Brooke
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 of the Champions League because it is entirely at odds with every other page of it. This is a proud historic club but a financially powerless one.
David only killed one Goliath, Ajax have now killed two in six weeks. 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. But tonight in Turin, Ajax produced their second once-in-alifetime game, beating Juventus 2-1.
They should have won by far more given how they dominated the second half, playing football their richer opponents did not even dare, cutting through Juventus with every attack. But it did not matter, 3-2 over two legs was no real reflection but it was more than enough.
Regardless of whether Ajax go on to repeat what they last did in 1995 with that legendary team, or even whether they close out the Dutch league or Dutch cup, they have already done something far more important than simply winning a football competition. They have proved a point, and now proved it again. Ajax’s wage bill is less than the richer Championship clubs, or Celtic, but they have turned that into a source of strength this year. They have a team of academy products and clever buys who are actually better than the big boys.
Not because the individuals are brilliant — although they are — but because Ajax know that football is about being more than just a sum of your parts. It’s about being a team. That’s how they took points from Bayern Munich, how they did the unthinkable to Real Madrid and now the same to Juventus, the club who paid Real £88million for Ronaldo in the summer. Ronaldo is the greatest individualist in the game and he scored here, as he always does in the quarter-finals, giving Juventus a 2-1 aggregate lead. But he’s no substitute for identity, coherence, team-work or belief.
His two headers, one in each leg, were very good but they were also the full extent of Juventus’ attacking play over 180 minutes of football. And after his goal on Tuesday night Juventus did nothing else at all, 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 i n the Bernabeu.
In the end they dominated both legs and 3-2, in a tie where Juventus had two chances, barely scratches the surface. But 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 ultimately this spell of frantic pressure counted for nothing, because Juventus had nothing to back it up. No creativity, no imagination, no real skill. And 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 despite that, it was still Juventus who took the lead, Ronaldo heading in a Pjanic corner after finding himself free in the box. It only took six minutes for Ajax 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 Bernadeschi.
The Juve defence stopped, Van de Beek carried on and slotted the ball past Wojciech Szczesny. 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 even better than how Ajax started the second half last week. Both full backs up, De Jong in charge, Tadic dropping deep with runners beyond him. Black shirts moving in fast harmony leaving the defenders frozen on the pitch.