Ajax are the surprise package of this season’s Champions League following their march to the semi-finals.
After hammering holders Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the previous round, Erik Ten Hag’s brilliant young side knocked out Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus with another stunning win in Turin.
Here, Press Association Sport takes a look at the secrets of their success.
Ten Hag’s first managerial job was with Go Ahead Eagles in 2012, before moving to Bayern Munich II between 2013 and 2015. The Bayern first team were led by Pep Guardiola at this time and the Spaniard’s influence on Ten Hag is evident.
A return to his homeland saw the Dutchman exceed all expectations at Utrecht with back-to-back top-five Eredivisie finishes and Europa League qualification. He was appointed Ajax boss in December 2017.
Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt are among the brightest prospects in European football and form part of the crop of young talents coming through at Ajax.
Barcelona have already snapped up De Jong, the midfielder set to join the Spanish champions on a five-year contract for €75million in the summer.
Captain De Ligt looks like he could be the next to leave, with the likes of Barca, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal reportedly keen to sign the 19-year-old.
Ten Hag has rejuvenated the careers of Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind, who were signed during the summer following a frustrating campaign for both men in the Premier League last season.
Former Southampton forward Tadic became just the ninth player in history to get a perfect 10 out of 10 score in L’Equipe’s infamously ruthless player ratings for his performance in Ajax’s 4-1 victory in Madrid last month.
STYLE OF PLAY
Guardiola’s influence is clear but Ten Hag has also been true to the Ajax way pioneered by Johan Cruyff. That philosophy has seen Ten Hag mould a vibrant and energetic team led by an exciting blend of talented youngsters and aided by a few experienced heads.
Installing former players who understand the club in key off-field roles has aided the resurgence of Ajax. Marc Overmars is the director of football and has been credited with playing a major role in the assembly of Ajax’s precocious side.
Meanwhile, Edwin Van Der Sar is currently working as the club’s chief executive.
Central defender De Ligt, the Ajax captain at just 19 years of age, headed the winner in a 2-1 victory in Turin – the Amsterdam club winning 3-2 on aggregate.
Ajax are the first team in Champions League history to make the semi-finals after surviving three qualifying rounds, and will now meet Manchester City or Tottenham in the last four.
“I can’t describe what kind of emotion we have at the moment,” De Ligt told BT Sport 3 after Ajax had added Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus to their list of Champions League victims, having previously eliminated holders Real Madrid.
“It’s unbelievable what we achieved, we are a squad from the Netherlands and we show the world what we can do.
“We showed it in the Bernabeu (against Madrid), we showed it against Bayern Munich (at the group stage) and now we showed it against Juventus.
“But we are never satisfied and the next game is also going to be important, we’ll see what happens.
“There is so much potential in our team and we are all still young. You see us grow every game.”
Ronaldo headed Juventus into a 28th-minute lead with his 126th goal in the competition and his ninth in seven meetings against Ajax.
But Donny Van De Beek levelled six minutes later and De Ligt’s winner midway through the second half rewarded Ajax’s superiority.
“It was a great corner kick,” De Ligt said.
“I jumped and I know I can jump high and head the ball well. That was the perfect moment to score.
“We had so many chances to score at the end, it is 2-1 but it could be 3-1 or 4-1.
“The only thing we lack is that we have to score more, but that is a big compliment to us as a team.”
Ajax will definitely meet English opposition in their first Champions League semi-final since the 1996-97 season and the days of Edwin van der Sar, Jari Litmanen and Marc Overmars.
But asked whether he wanted to play City or Spurs, De Ligt said: “At the moment I don’t have any preference.
“We will see who is coming to the semi-final and then we have to show the same.”
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Lionel Messi’s first-half double – the first a trademark finish, the second courtesy of a blunder from David De Gea – plus Philippe Coutinho’s 61st-minute wonder goal gave a stark reminder of the difference between the two sides.
Solskjaer will now turn his attention to the domestic front, where United will vie for a top-four spot in the Premier League, but the Norwegian knows he faces a major rebuilding job this summer and beyond.
He said: “We did well to get here and you could see the difference between the two teams.
“We know there’s work to be done. I’ve said all along this isn’t going to change overnight and the next few years are going to be massive for us to get to the level where Barcelona and other teams are at the moment.
“We have to look at ourselves, we know we have a job to do and we are getting on with it.
“We need to get the best out of each other, create an environment of top, top, top-class attitude, world-class attitude every single day. Because we’ve got good players and I’ve got good players to work with.
“We’ve done really, really well to get to the quarters and challenge for the top four.
“So we’ve got a rebuilding job but it starts with the coaches and players, and of course one or two additions to the squad will happen in the summer.”
Following last week’s 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford, United knew they needed to score against a side who, coming into Tuesday night, had not lost in their last 30 matches at home in the Champions League.
Solskjaer felt United needed to display a fearless and attacking mindset in the intimidating atmosphere, similar to the one that saw them overturn a two-goal deficit at Paris St Germain in the last 16 last month.
They made an enterprising start as Marcus Rashford struck the top of the crossbar in the first few seconds but were thoroughly second best after five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi opened the scoring after 16 minutes.
Dispossessing Ashley Young on the flank, Messi cut inside and curled beyond De Gea, who four minutes later allowed the Barcelona captain’s tame right-foot effort to slide under him.
That effectively ended the contest – while Coutinho added gloss to the scoreline with a superb strike from distance after the interval – though Solskjaer was understandably reticent to criticise a goalkeeper who has so often come to United’s aid in recent years.
Solskjaer said: “That’s unfortunate with goalkeepers. When you make an error, it can get highlighted and that’ll be remembered.
“But he made some fantastic saves as well, which all in all, his contribution to the team is good but sometimes that happens in football.
“The quality of their finishing was absolutely outstanding. We started well in the first 15 minutes, we felt we’ve got something here and then in four minutes they scored two goals.
“The attitude was right, we were fighting against a good team and good players out there.
“Messi is an exceptional talent, him and Cristiano (Ronaldo) have been the best players in the world in the last decade.
“He showed why we all think that and why he’s won so many titles and why this team have won so many Champions Leagues (four since 2006).
“You can prepare as much as you like, if you give him space and time around the goal he’ll create and score goals, he’s a fantastic player.”
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