Football

Ajax find de Ligt in slaying Juventus

Dutch side believe they can go 'beyond limitations' after reaching semi-finals

Ajax Amsterdam coach Erik ten Hag said Juventus "were a little scared of us" after the Dutch side brought a breath of fresh air to the Champions League by reaching the semi-finals yesterday morning (Singapore time).

Having knocked out Real Madrid with a 4-1 win at the Bernabeu in the previous round, Ajax came from behind to beat Juventus 2-1 in Turin and complete a remarkable 3-2 aggregate win in their quarter-final.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring for Juve in the 28th minute before Ajax hit back with goals by academy graduates Donny van de Beek and Matthijs de Ligt in either half.

Ajax are the first team to reach the Champions League semi-finals after surviving three qualifying rounds, reported Reuters.

They began their campaign in the second qualifying round on July 25 - 10 days after the World Cup final - at home to Austrian side Sturm Graz.

In all, yesterday's game was their 16th in the competition this season, six more than Juventus.

"We have again knocked out one of the Champions League favourites. With our philosophy, we can go beyond our limitations and we've done it again," said ten Hag, whose side face English opposition in the next round.

"You could see that Juve were a little scared of us and so were Real Madrid.

"It is very difficult to play against our style of football, as we have very technically gifted players and it's tough to press us. Even in defence, only we know how to perform that variable pressing game.

"Our tie with Real Madrid was similar, as again we should've scored more goals in Amsterdam.

"We need to convert more of our chances and kill games off earlier. Having said that, I am very happy and proud of the team and the whole staff...

"This team grows and grows. We know how to push boundaries every time.

"And with Tottenham (Hotspur) or Manchester City there will be another challenge.

"We look forward to it."

Despite the presence of the world's top players and coaches, Europe's flagship competition has been in danger of going stale over the last decade as it has become dominated by a handful of big-money clubs.

Remarkably, Ajax are the first team from outside England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France to reach the last four since their compatriots PSV Eindhoven 14 years ago.

Once regarded as a major power in European football, Ajax have in the last 10 years become a feeder club, signing players at a young age and developing them before selling them.

Even so, they have been able to build a young team that plays exciting, fluid football.

The youngest star in the Ajax line-up is captain and match-winner de Ligt, 19.

"We have so much potential in the team and we're still quite young and you see us grow in every game," he told the Uefa website.

"Weird, this is weird. I wasn't even born then," added de Ligt of the club's last semi-final appearance in 1996/97.

"We know that we have a lot of technical quality, so we don't fear any opponent."

Ten Hag has said there is no chance de Ligt will be at Ajax next season with Europe's richest clubs lurking.

Teammate Frenkie de Jong has already sealed his move away from Amsterdam, having inked a 75 million-euro (S$114.7m) deal with Barcelona next season.

The 21-year-old told French broadcaster RMC Sport: "I do not know if this is the best match of our lives but it went well.

"In Madrid, it was harder because we lost in the first leg.

"Win the Champions League? We are in the semi-finals, we have a chance but we are not favourites.

"But of course, it's always possible."

In their moment of glory, some Ajax players thought of one of the stars of their generation who was absent.

Attacking midfielder Abdelhak Nouri suffered permanent brain damage after a heart attack playing for Ajax in 2017 aged 20, reported AFP.

Nouri used to wear No. 34 and van de Beek, 22, scored Ajax's equaliser in the 34th minute.

The club, who lead the Dutch league on goal difference, are chasing their 34th Eredivisie title.

Van de Beek told Dutch newspaper de Telegraaf: "After scoring in the 34th minute, I thought of him. I will never forget this.

"He would've been proud if he'd seen Ajax play like that in the second half...

"I think we could've scored at least five goals."

JUVENTUS: Szczesny, de Sciglio (Cancelo 64), Rugani, Bonucci, Sandro, Can, Pjanic, Matuidi, Bernardeschi (Bentancur 80), Dybala (Kean 46), Ronaldo

AJAX: Onana, Mazraoui (Sinkgraven 11, Magallan 82), Blind, de Ligt, Veltman, de Jong, Schone, Neres, van de Beek, Ziyech (Huntelaar 88) , Tadic

Football