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.
Kean was subjected to racist abuse by Cagliari fans on Tuesday but his 84th-minute effort on Saturday helped Juventus edge closer to their eighth successive Serie A title.
Speaking on the club’s official website, Allegri said of the 19-year-old forward: “He is doing very well, but let’s leave him to be calm.
“He needed to stay at Juventus to grow technically, train and play with the champions, but he can also improve mentally.”
Krzysztof Piatek gave Milan the lead, becoming the league’s joint-top goalscorer, before a penalty from Paulo Dybala levelled the scores after an hour.
Kean’s late intervention means Juventus are 21 points clear at the top of the table, with second-placed Napoli having just eight games left.
Allegri added: “It was important to win today, now we just need a win or a draw, in the event that Napoli does not win all the matches.
“In the first half there was little or nothing, we were a bit ‘arranged’ and I knew we could have had some difficulties.
“We were more orderly in the second half, with a good game plan, we rearranged the layout.”
Fourth-placed Milan have gone four games without a win but boss Gennaro Gattuso was satisfied with his side’s showing at the Allianz Stadium.
He told Sky Sport Italia: “It was our best performance of 2019, we lost it in the final 18-20 minutes not because Juve did well, but because of our mistakes.
“These things can happen when you play the kind of football we do.
“Even last season, we had a great performance here and the biggest regret was we were naive.”
Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini insists team-mate Moise Kean did nothing wrong by celebrating a goal in the face of racist abuse from opposition fans during the win at Cagliari.
The 19-year-old was criticised by his manager Massimiliano Allegri and team-mate Leonardo Bonucci for the way he celebrated towards the end of a Serie A match during which he was subjected to persistent abuse, including monkey chants.
Kean stood next to the post, his arms spread wide, after netting in Juve’s 2-0 win.
There has been widespread condemnation of the criticism of Kean’s actions and Chiellini has also now leapt to the defence of the teenager.
“Moise is an asset to Italian football, a golden boy who is doing his best and he doesn’t have to pretend to be something he’s not,” said the veteran defender on the Juventus website.
“I don’t really remember what happened while I was on the pitch, but I’ve seen the pictures of Moise and he didn’t do anything wrong.
“You have to think of him like people do (Nicolo) Zaniolo, (Federico) Chiesa, (Nicolo) Barella (who are all young Italy internationals)… as a positive representation of Italian football, because he deserves that status.
“The only thing he got wrong yesterday was the dive, which I’m sure he won’t repeat, but he’s here to learn. He’s a very positive person and certainly didn’t deserve the insults he received.”
Provided by Press Association Sport