Matthijs de Ligt was the first Ajax player back out on the pitch in Turin, shortly after 11pm, and then his teammates followed. A 19-year-old captain leading the way in every sense, scoring the winning goal with a towering header and now orchestrating a second round of celebrations in front of the Ajax supporters located in the far corner of the Allianz Stadium.
A little earlier, at the opposite end of the ground, a number of Juventus fans had stayed behind to applaud the Ajax players. All over the world people were doing likewise with praise and emojis on social media, from your regular football fan to World Cup winners. “Football, bravo,” tweeted France’s Antoine Griezmann.
Ajax did not just beat Juventus in Turin, they totally outplayed them. The same thing happened against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in the previous round. Two of European football’s heavyweights given a bloody nose by a team with a 30-year-old former Southampton player up front and a wage budget that would not look out of place at the top end of the Championship.
Bold, fearless and exhilarating to watch, Ajax breezed into their first Champions League semi-final since 1997. “You could see Juventus were a little bit scared of us and so were Real Madrid,” said Erik ten Hag, the Ajax manager. “We were not favourites but with our philosophy we again exceeded our limits.”
A spotlight shines on Ajax’s youngsters for good reason. De Ligt (19), Donny van de Beek (21), Frenkie de Jong, David Neres (22) and André Onana (23) are exceptional talents. “Baby Ajax” gave Juventus a lesson was Gazzetta dello Sport’s take on the Italian champions’ 3-2 aggregate defeat, yet the influence and experience of a few older heads, in particular the two big signings the four-times European Cup winners made last summer, should not be overlooked.
Daley Blind, who turned 29 last month, rejoined Ajax from Manchester United for a club-record fee of £14.1m. On the face of it, Blind would appear to be ideal captain material, yet he is the sort of player who leads through actions rather than words. De Ligt, his central-defensive partner and 10 years his junior, is far more comfortable wearing the armband than Blind. Together, however, they are an excellent pairing and there was much to admire about the calm maturity Blind brought to Ajax’s defending in Turin.
The other major outlay – and a fee of £10m fits that description in Ajax’s world – went on Dusan Tadic. A penny for the thoughts of Southampton supporters every time they watch Tadic in an Ajax shirt. It is not that he was particularly poor during his four seasons with the Saints, more that no one would have had him down as a player who would run Real ragged and take the Champions League by storm at the age of 30.
Tadic’s numbers this season are staggering. He has been directly involved in 50 Ajax goals, scoring 32 and assisting 18. The Eredivisie may not be the Premier League but Tadic, in fairness to him, has scored six and set up another three in the Champions League, with four of his goals coming against Bayern Munich, Real and Benfica.
Playing a for a new club in a new position, the Serb has been a revelation. “This is like a ‘fake striker,’” said Tadic, explaining his deployment as a false nine for Ajax. “I move everywhere, with a little bit of a free role, and I am very happy. But most important is the team, to try to help, and this team can do everything.”
The other regular starter in that older-age category is Lasse Schöne, who has been with Ajax since 2012 and will celebrate his 33rd birthday four days before the Champions League final. Converted to a holding midfielder over time, the Denmark international’s partnership with De Jong is another example of old and young working in tandem in this fascinating Ajax team.
De Jong will be gone in the summer, when he joins Barcelona, and the reality is that a number of others will follow, including De Ligt and probably Hakim Ziyech, who at 26 is something of a rarity in this Ajax squad.
“We aren’t talking about that [the team breaking up]. We still have three titles to go for and that’s what we’re focused on,” Schöne said. “We all know a team like this, the big clubs are going to come with a big bag of money. It’s difficult for the club and I don’t think we can have the same team next year. I hope we do, of course, but that’s the way it goes.”
Ajax know money talks and accept their place in the financial pecking order, yet their results and performances in the Champions League this season, which started in the second qualifying round in the last week of July, serve as a reminder that games are not always won on balance sheets. Ambition burns fiercely on the pitch among a team who are daring to dream.
“We play our football, it doesn’t matter who is our opponent,” Tadic said. “This is the feeling in our group – that we can hurt everyone.”