AMSTERDAM – There are still 90 minutes to come in Turin against the experience of Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus, but Ajax head to Italy with hope intact after Wednesday’s 1-1 draw in their Champions League quarter-final first leg.
“Ajax still standing” said the daily De Volkskrant, who described the youthful Amsterdam side as “courageous and free”, after they came back from conceding to Ronaldo on the stroke of halftime.
Erik ten Hag’s thrilling side earned a draw in this repeat of the 1973 and 1996 finals thanks to a brilliant David Neres goal just after the restart at a boisterous Johan Cruyff Arena.
Aptly, the Brazilian’s strike came as the home fans were still singing their adopted anthem, Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, reminding their team that “every little thing’s gonna be alright”.
Juventus do have the edge thanks to Ronaldo’s 125th Champions League goal, which came from the Italian side’s only shot on target. However, Ajax have now lost just once in five European matches this season against three continental giants: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and now the Italian champions.
It is little wonder they maintain hope for the return leg next Tuesday. After all, they lost 2-1 at home to Real in the first leg of the last 16, before winning 4-1 in the return tie in Spain.
“If we play the way we did in Madrid, with a lot of courage, then we have a big chance of winning. We’ve done well so far in the Champions League, and we’re not done yet,” said the midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who was outstanding.
When asked if the result against Real gave them the necessary hope for the return, captain Matthijs de Ligt was unequivocal.
“Of course we have belief, we always have belief, but in the end it’s all about the game in Turin,” said the highly promising 19-year-old defender.
Neres stole the limelight with his seventh goal in eight games, but De Jong was the outstanding player on the pitch, running the show in midfield.
The 21-year-old is on his way to Barcelona at the end of the season after a deal worth an initial €75 million was agreed in January, but that eye-watering fee will end up looking like a bargain if he keeps performing at this level.
Leading daily De Telegraaf wrote that he “drove Juventus to despair”, while Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri described De Jong as “the real source of their game”.
The hope is that Ajax can enjoy a glorious finish to the season before De Jong – and probably several others – leave in the summer.
If that is the case, with Ajax level with PSV Eindhoven at the top of the Dutch Eredivisie and into the Cup final, De Jong’s photo will soon be hanging from the walls of the Johan Cruyff Arena along with so many other past greats, from Cruyff himself to Marco van Basten and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The biggest obstacle between Ajax and a first Champions League semi-final since 1997, though, might be Ronaldo.
“When there is an important game, he is always there,” said Juve fullback Alex Sandro of Ronaldo, who followed his hat trick which dumped out Atletico Madrid in the last-16 by scoring against Ajax for the eighth time in his Champions League career.
Ajax are still dreaming of winning the European Cup for the fifth time, but Ronaldo remains on course to win the Champions League for the fourth season in a row.AFP