Before Tuesday, my plan for this piece was to react to all four of this week’s Champions League quarterfinal results.
But before Tuesday, Juventus planned to be in the semifinals, and it was perfectly reasonable to expect the UCL final four to consist of some combination of the usual suspects.
What I’m trying to say is that my plans changed after Ajax went out and obliterated another financial powerhouse. Once again, it was hard to tell – if you could look past the favorites’ iconic jerseys – who was David and who was Goliath. Though Ajax won the second leg just 2-1, they could have easily scored four or five second-half goals.
So Lionel Messi’s dismantling of Manchester United and Tottenham’s thrilling win over Manchester City are going on the backburner. Instead, I’ll become the latest to gush about the young Dutch club, which has already been the subject of one fawning tribute after another.
And I now think I was actually underestimating them. Before they knocked off Juventus, the win over Real Madrid could have been dismissed as Ajax merely handling a flawed team missing Cristiano Ronaldo in the worst way. But no matter how vulnerable Juventus may have looked in the round of 16 first leg against Atlético Madrid, they are a veteran, proven squad led by the UCL’s all-time leading scorer.
The reasons to discount Ajax, for those who remain unconvinced, can’t possibly still include any variation of, “Who have they beat?” They’ve now played 16 (!) Champions League games since last July, including qualifiers. Their record in those matches is 9-6-1. More impressively, in six games against Real Madrid, likely Bundesliga champ Bayern Munich and runaway Serie A winner Juve, Ajax is 2-3-1, with a combined score in those games of 12-9.
Ajax was not the least bit impressed by their Serie A foe in the quarterfinals. Not by the Italians’ on-field pedigree, and not by their massive financial advantage. As ESPN.com’s Gabriele Marcotti pointed out, “The €112 million Juventus spent on acquiring Ronaldo is €20m more than Ajax’s annual revenues. The team’s wage bill is €4m short of what the five-time Ballon d’Or winner makes before tax.”
Not worried about a thing
Apparently, the PA system at Amsterdam Arena played Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” at halftime of the first leg vs. Juventus – no word on whether that’s a staple or a one-time thing. Either way, it was apt, as Ajax answered Juve’s opener in that game, which came just before halftime, immediately after the break.
On Tuesday, Juve scored first on a header by Ronaldo in the 28th minute, which would have broken a lesser team’s spirit. But Ajax equalized just six minutes later on a goal by Donny van de Beek.
When people talk about how fearless this team is, yes, they’re referring to Ajax’s overall approach and particularly their offensive flair. But more importantly, Ajax refuse to go into the tank after falling behind. They needed 15 minutes to equalize after falling behind 1-0 in the round of 16 first leg against RM. They’ve made a habit of staying collected and relaxed, no matter the score. The composure it takes to shake off a goal and respond quickly is something much more experienced teams often lack on the biggest stage. At this point, it seems safe to say that Ajax’s unwavering sense of calm, whether because of or despite their inexperience, would impress even Bob Marley himself.
Substance complements style
Plenty has already been said about all the opportunities Ajax created with their precision passing, and rightly so. But the way they stifled Ronaldo and Juventus after halftime was remarkable, even if it went somewhat unnoticed because of their dazzling play when in possession.
Matthijs de Ligt and his teammates along the back line and in the midfield won 50-50 ball after 50-50 ball against one of the most physical teams in Europe. We were well aware before Ajax knocked off Juventus that the Dutch club was young and flashy. Now we can add stubborn and stout to the growing list of adjectives for Ajax, which does not lack anything other than the proper amount of respect – they’re currently road underdogs for leg one of the semifinals at Tottenham.
If you’re a believer in Ajax now, finally, look at their +410 at FanDuel Sportsbook NJ — these kids can play.