The youngest-ever captain in a Champions League knockout game rose into the heavens like Cristiano Ronaldo and came back down with a fairytale semi-final berth for Ajax in Turin.
Matthijs De Ligt, who turns 20 in August, scored a thunderous header in the second half to deservedly secure safe passage for his side in a 2-1 victory against an underwhelming Juventus.
Ronaldo had opened the scoring with a header of his own after a unfortunate coming together between De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong from a corner, but Donny van de Beek soon levelled with a smart finish.
Juve well and truly lost their way in the second half as Ajax spurned a hatful of chances, but De Ligt had the final say.
Acres of internet space have been dedicated to the rising fame of Dutch starlets De Ligt and De Jong, with Donny van de Beek the footnote.
Not any more – not after this performance. While De Ligt delivered a headbutt to Juventus’ Champions League dreams for another year, and a half-fit De Jong imposed his will in midfield, Van de Beek drew most of the eyeballs.
Though usually a No6, Erik ten Hag has pushed the 21-year-old up-field in the Champions League knockouts thus far and Juventus couldn’t cope up with his hyperspeed decision-making.
Donny van de Beek has now scored or created a goal vs. Bayern, Real Madrid & Juventus in the UCL this season.— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) April 16, 2019
Indeed so high did Van de Beek play he was the furthest forward at times, finding pockets of space behind Daniele Rugani and Leonardo Bonucci, with the central pairing drawn into Hakim Ziyech and David Neres’ bursts on the wings.
Van de Beek took down Ziyech’s errant shot expertly – and remained onside – to slot past Wojciech Szczesny.
Neres, Ziyech and Dusan Tadic were also superb, but if they had shown half the composure of Van de Beek in the final third, Juve would have been utterly humiliated.
JUVE GOT PROBLEMS
The year 1996 should be a joyous one in Juventus’ history, but time has tinged it with bitterness. It’s been that long since the Old Lady lifted the Champions League trophy – the irony that it came against Ajax should not be lost – and not even Ronaldo could take them all the way during another futile campaign.
This one could mark the end of Max Allegri, despite building a fine reputation in Turin. Ultimately, Juve looked bereft of ideas and their tactics were puzzling to say the least.
The Bianconeri committed to attacking from out wide despite the absence of Douglas Costa and Joao Cancelo, and a sluggish Mattia De Sciglio at right-back.
Two-legged xG map for Ajax - Juventus. This isn't one of those underdog runs where you defend like hell and get a little lucky. Ajax are running folks over playing their game. pic.twitter.com/pDmWVPNtZ7— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) April 16, 2019
Federico Bernardeschi had one of the poorest games he’ll ever have in a central midfield that were so ponderous up against a vibrant Ajax.
Where they’ve added Ronaldo they’ve also lost Paulo Dybala, the nominal striker who was only nominally on the pitch. Wonderkid Moise Kean added some impetus in the second half but it was all disjointed behind him.
Where to next for Juve?
With the clamour from fat cat clubs for a European Super League building by the week, it is always a refreshing sight to see relatively impoverished sides punching above their weight.
Except Ajax aren’t defying the odds. At least not in terms of their playing personnel. De Ligt is every inch the peer of any defender left in the competition,
De Jong is as metronomic as a (soon-to-be) Barca midfielder at his best, while Tadic, Van de Beek, Neres and Ziyech are options any top side would crave.
It's almost like the Champions League is better when teams from more than just the five countries with the largest TV markets do well and we shouldn't just cram the competition full of as many of them as possible.— Rory Smith (@RorySmith) April 16, 2019
Thanks to savvy spending and a once-in-a-generation academy output, Ajax should be seen as the equals of any club in Europe.
It’s a shame that the inevitable break-up will start this summer, with De Jong’s departure to Barca only the start of an inevitable exodus.
As it is though, Manchester City or Tottenham would be foolish to think that a semi-final against Ajax is an easier prospect than facing Barca or Liverpool.
Ajax fans, and neutrals the world over, should dare to dream like it’s 1995 again.
Pep Guardiola must mastermind a victory for his side on the night by creating more opportunities in attack if they are to progress to the semi-finals.
Here, we look at the key tactics he may employ.
DE BRUYNE IN MIDFIELD
The onus is firmly on City to be on the front foot in this encounter. A one-goal advantage, the absence of Harry Kane and the fact that they’re playing away are all factors that will influence Spurs into absorbing pressure and looking to attack on the break.
Pep Guardiola’s side should enjoy even more than the 59 per cent share of possession they had at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and, in order to capitalise on that, they’ll need the play-making ability of Kevin De Bruyne in the middle of the park.
Guardiola was criticised for benching the Belgian for the first leg who then responded with two assists at Crystal Palace.
MORE WIDTH IN ATTACK
With the amount of possession City are likely to have at the Etihad Stadium, they will need to stretch Tottenham’s defence in order to create openings. As such, Guardiola may be tempted to retain the left flank he deployed at Palace on Sunday. Like De Bruyne, Sane was also a substitute for the first leg with Riyad Mahrez preferred instead.
The Germany international would generate ample width down that left side while Benjamin Mendy’s overlapping runs could do the same and ask more questions of Spurs’ defence.
More importantly, the left-sided duo could force the defence to shuttle across, leaving space for Raheem Sterling to exploit on the far side or open up gaps between centre-backs for David Silva and De Bruyne to take advantage of.
Mauricio Pochettino will be tasked with getting the better of Pep Guardiola again if his side are to progress to the semi-finals, ending City’s hopes of a quadruple this season.
Here, we look at the key tactics he may employ.
MOURA IN FOR KANE
The scenario is set up perfectly for Tottenham to adopt a counter-attacking strategy. With Harry Kane unavailable, it makes sense to draft in Lucas Moura who scored a hat-trick against Huddersfield over the weekend. The Brazilian’s searing pace plays perfectly into Spurs’ plans to attack City on the break. In the absence of Kane’s link-up play in the final third, Mauricio Pochettino will urge his side to adopt a more direct style.
City must score at the Etihad Stadium and as they commit numbers forward, the mobile duo of Son Heung-min and Moura – complemented by Dele Alli’s presence in support – will be on hand to pounce in the transition.
In Kane’s absence, Spurs are almost certain to go with two up top but rather than favour a more familiar three-man defence in that set-up, Pochettino might want to consider a 4-4-2 diamond instead. City will be keen on dominating possession and dictating play in the midfield. A diamond would help the visitors contain the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.
Meanwhile, Moussa Sissoko’s presence on the right of midfield should help Kieran Trippier cope with what may be an attacking City left flank should Pep Guardiola bring in both Leroy Sane and Benjamin Mendy as he did away to Crystal Palace over the weekend.