Ajax take on Juventus this week in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final in the Johan Cruyff Arena.
Juventus may be strong favourites, but Ajax are one of the best teams to watch currently in world football, and pulled off one of the great European comebacks when they beat Real Madrid last month.
These are two of Europe’s biggest clubs, and the atmosphere in Amsterdam on Wednesday is going to be electric. They are polar opposites in how they are run and how they are viewed by neutrals, but can Ajax pull off another shock in a Champions League campaign already full of them?
Here’s why we think this clash could steal the show for this year’s quarter-final stage.
Their Route So Far
The two sides have been on a rollercoaster of emotions since entering the competition, but Ajax actually started their Champions League journey way back in July in the second qualification round.
Since then, they have beaten Benfica and drawn twice with Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, including a 3-3 tie in which both sides went down to ten men.
It was in the round of 16 that Ajax really made a statement
Juventus had an easier group stage, but did lose at home to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United and away at Young Boys, before a poor display against Atletico Madrid looked to have ended their hopes for another year.
That was before Cristiano Ronaldo’s phenomenal hat-trick sent the Old Lady through in dramatic fashion.
These are two teams that never know when they’re beaten.
Cristiano Ronaldo Is a Man on a Mission
The main reason Juventus signed the 34-year-old Portuguese megastar for over £100m from Real Madrid was to win the Champions League.
It’s difficult to believe that Italy’s most successful domestic club have only won Europe’s top prize twice in their illustrious history, with their last success being 23 years ago.
Ronaldo is in Turin to change that in the very near future, and with his record of five Champions League titles being just ahead of Lionel Messi’s four triumphs, you’d better believe that Ronaldo will be desperate to cement his place as the competition’s greatest ever player.
He still looks as motivated as ever to perform at the absolute elite level, as his performance against Atletico in the previous round proved, and his return to the squad following a hamstring injury on international duty will be a huge boost for Max Allegri’s side.
Ajax’s Last Chance
The Amsterdam club have had an exceptional season, scoring 100 Eredivisie goals in 29 games, and reaching the last eight of the Champions League for the first time since 2003.
However, without wishing to appear as a kill joy, this wonderful team full of young and brave attacking talent isn’t going to stay together for much longe.
Star midfielder Frenkie de Jong has already agreed to join Barcelona, while 18-year-old centre-half Matthijs de Ligt has become one of the hottest young talents in world football, and is unlikely to stay in Holland for another season with the relative lack of money the league has compared to the major sides in Europe.
Ajax Still Feel Robbed by the 1996 Final
The Dutch side went into the 1996 final in Rome as reigning champions, but their fans are still bitter about their loss on penalties to Juventus 23 years later.
As The Independent reports, Juventus’ players were hungrier, much more energetic, and as Marc Overmars said: “Didn’t look normal in the eyes.”
Questions were immediately raised from Louis van Gaal’s brilliant Ajax side regarding whether or not the Italians had been on some sort of performance enhancing drugs for the clash.
Former club general manager David Endt said:
A Clash Of Styles
As mentioned, the first leg hosts have been a goal scoring machine this season, netting 133 times in 42 matches.
Erik Ten Tag has done an outstanding job giving his young players an opportunity to play total football, reminiscent of the great Johan Cruyff team of the 1970s. They are not afraid to make mistakes and their quick style of passing will cause any team across Europe problems, all while playing a team which mostly came through the legendary Ajax academy.
On the other hand, while this Juventus team doesn’t quite live up to the Italian stereotype of slow, defensive football, their game is based on discipline and strong back line.
Ajax couldn’t dream of spending the money that Juventus have in recent years, but Allegri has built a very impressive team that will be one of the favourites to win the whole competition, which will be mainly thanks to a mean defence which has conceded just 20 Serie A goals all season.
Other Ties Look One Sided
No offence to Manchester United, Tottenham or Porto, but the chances of those sides getting past Barcelona, Manchester City and Liverpool respectively are slim to none.
And yes, the chances are the side that are 20 points clear at the top of Serie A will win this over two legs.
But, Juventus do have a nasty habit of blowing it in the latter stages of this competition, and this Ajax side has nothing to lose. They were extraordinary against Real Madrid in the previous round, and they’ll probably need to be even better to reach the last four over the Italian giants, but they won’t go down without a fight.