Cristiano Ronaldo’s flying header on the stroke of half-time gave Juventus a slight edge over Ajax in their Champions League quarter-final after Wednesday’s breathless 1-1 first-leg draw in Amsterdam.
The 34-year-old gave Juve the lead at the Johan Cruyff Arena, before David Neres curled home a superb leveller less than a minute after the restart.
Ronaldo’s away goal will give Juve an advantage going into the decisive second leg in Turin on April 16 after Ajax failed to capitalise on their dominance at home.
Ronaldo in the Champions League is like a Jack in the Box. The music plays, you wind him up and eventually he jumps out and frightens you. That was the case in Amsterdam.
Ajax supporters let off fireworks outside of Juventus’ hotel on the eve of the contest in an attempt to disrupt Ronaldo and the rest’s sleep.
They then tried to provoke him inside the ground by getting on his back at every opportunity and he responded in trademark fashion, by scoring.
His opener, from the beginning of the move, to the end, bore every essence of Ronaldo.
The ball was fired into him near the centre circle, he turned rapidly, released it into the right channel for Joao Cancelo and then immediately bulleted through the middle and exploded onto a delicious Cancelo cross with a diving header.
Granted, Frenkie de Jong should have tracked him and Daley Blind shouldn’t have vacated such a gap in the box, but as soon as Ronaldo released the ball, he knew where he needed to be – it was planned chaos.
The mentality to hurtle into the box, the intelligence to spot space and the ability to apply a fine finish is precisely why the Portuguese is unmatched in this competition.
As procured from Gracenote, no player has scored more goals in the Champions League quarter-finals than Ronaldo’s 24. In fact, the next two combined – Lionel Messi and Raul with 20 – don’t even reach his mark. The man lives for nights like this.
THE UNDERSTUDIES TAKE CENTRE STAGE
De Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech are the lead protagonists of this thrilling and expressive Ajax team.
But on Wednesday night, it was two players who actually started this campaign largely from the bench, who took to centre stage.
Indeed, David Neres and Donny van de Beek are two outstanding talents and quite why Europe’s elite sides aren’t in a frenzy to sign either one is quite staggering.
We’ll start with the 21-year-old Dutchman who was absolutely brilliant in behind Dusan Tadic.
His vision and technique frequently opened up Juve’s compact backline but even against their strong first-half press, he was able to manoeuvre the ball to a team-mate through one-touch passes or clever flicks.
He has that natural sense of identifying exactly where the opponent is, and a nearby team-mate. Stopping and developing counterpresses, Van de Beek is a pretty unique playmaker.
A more traditional creative force forms in Neres. The Brazilian is uncut and raw in some fundamental areas because he can hold onto the ball a little too long then be imprecise with basic passing.
But boy is he entertaining to watch. The 22-year-old’s goal was stunning as Ajax hit back straight after the break, caressing the ball into the far right corner. It was measured and polished, if he applies that to other parts of his game, he’ll be quite the talent.
Credit to Ajax for again attacking with such ferocious intent but the away goal is massive for Max Allegri’s men.
At the Allianz Stadium, there will be spaces to exploit because Erik ten Hag’s outfit are full throttle from minute one to 90.
While they were a step ahead of Juve in every department on Wednesday, Ajax, particularly Ziyech, just weren’t clinical enough.
That naivety will likely be punished once more in Turin.
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