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Matthijs de Ligt strikes decisive header for Ajax to overcome Juventus

Matthijs de Ligt

First Real Madrid, now Juventus. What a story this Champions League campaign is turning into for Ajax, who produced another remarkable performance to reach the semi-finals of the competition for the first time since 1997, courtesy of a goal scored by a player who was not even born when they last graced that stage.

Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax’s outstanding 19-year-old captain, ended Cristiano Ronaldo’s hopes of winning a fourth successive Champions League title and a first for Juventus with a towering header that was no more than Ajax deserved after playing with the same confidence, freedom and conviction that eliminated Real Madrid in the last round.

That 4-1 victory at the Bernabéu last month seemed freakish as well as brilliant, but the scoreline here could have been just as emphatic. Ajax’s dynamic, incisive attacking football was simply too much for Juventus to handle, in particular in the second half, when the visitors took control and created chance after chance.

Cristiano Ronaldo is distraught at the final whistle.

Cristiano Ronaldo is distraught at the final whistle. Photograph: Isabella Bonotto/AFP/Getty Images

David Neres, Dusan Tadic and Hakim Ziyech wreaked havoc with their fluid movement and clever touches. Frenkie de Jong and Lasse Schöne controlled midfield, and Donny van de Beek was exceptional playing in between the lines. It was Van de Beek’s equaliser that cancelled out Ronaldo’s goal and the 21-year-old would have scored a splendid second but for Wojciech Szczesny superbly tipping the ball over the bar.

That save came just before the hour-mark and at a stage when Ajax were moving the ball around with such poise and precision that it seemed as though they had an extra player. They were a joy to watch at times, especially when they committed numbers forward on the counterattack to expose the defensive frailties in a Juventus side who never really got going.

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Even Ronaldo’s goal, a trademark header and his 126th in the Champions League, failed to ignite a team who were made to look distinctly ordinary by the lovely blend of experience and youthful exuberance that Ajax possess. That Ajax have assembled their squad without breaking the bank provides another reason to enjoy their extraordinary run to the last four, where Tottenham or Manchester City await.

Ajax are a brilliant mix of home-grown talent such as Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt combined with unfancied older players like Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind.

Ajax are a brilliant mix of home-grown talent such as Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt combined with unfancied older players like Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Their success seems like a throwback to another era and in many ways has breathed fresh life into the Champions League, which has been dominated by the same clubs for far too long. It seemed telling that some Juventus fans stayed behind long after the final whistle to applaud the Ajax players.

Ronaldo had already departed and it was tempting to wonder what was going through his mind as he trudged from the pitch. The 34-year-old single-handedly turned around their tie against Atlético Madrid in the last 16, when he scored a hat-trick here in the second leg, and he could have been forgiven for thinking that this tie would follow a similar script when he met Miralem Pjanic’s corner with a header in the 28th minute.

That goal was only allowed to stand after a VAR check – replays showed that Joël Veltman, the Ajax right-back, had been knocked to the ground by De Ligt rather than a Juventus player – and there was also a hold-up before Van de Beek’s equaliser was confirmed. Ziyech’s wayward effort dropped at the feet of Van de Beek, who took a touch before dispatching a low shot beyond the reach of Szczesny. Although Van de Beek looked offside, replays showed that Federico Bernardeschi, the Juventus right-winger, was the last man.

Massimiliano Allegri made a change at half-time, withdrawing the injured Paulo Dybala, his captain, and replacing him with Moise Kean, yet all the attacking impetus belonged to Ajax. Van de Beek and Neres combined to set up Ziyech, who had only Szczesny to beat but his right-foot shot was blocked by the goalkeeper’s left hand.

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Anxiety started to grow among the Juventus fans as Ajax kept pouring forward. Van de Beek’s curling effort was saved and only a last-ditch intervention from Pjanic prevented Ziyech from connecting with Tadic’s low centre, adding to the sense that an Ajax goal was coming.

So it proved as De Ligt, climbing above Alex Sandro and Daniele Rugani, met Schöne’s corner with a thumping header that gave Szczesny no chance.

Neres could easily have added a third and Ziyech had a goal disallowed as Ajax started to enjoy themselves. They may not be finished yet.

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team
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