Feature Photo: AFP / Getty Images
Juventus’ Champions League Curse continues. The Bianconeri ended their run in the elite European competition once again in the Quarter Finals, demolished by a magnificent Ajax. Coach Erik ten Hag’s squad raided the Allianz Stadium, snatched an epic 2-1 win, and progressed 3-2 on aggregate to show their face among the Top Four for the first time in 22 years.
The “big ears” cup will thus be a chimera for at least one more year for Massimiliano Allegri and his striped boys, despite Cristiano Ronaldo and his headers. The Genius of Madeira, who one year ago had pushed Juventus out of the UCL from the penalty spot, was wearing a black-and-white jersey this time, and indeed did his job – striking twice in the double confrontation.
But Ajax managed to come back despite the initial gap to consume a long-awaited revenge, a moment they had been yearning for since the day of that infamous UCL 1996 Final in Rome – when the Old Lady had lifted the trophy for the last time. They did so thanks to a powerful header by their 19-year-old captain Matthijs De Ligt, a man who is ironically rumored to be on the Bianconeri’s radar for the next transfer market session
With half of Italy – and possibly even more – happy at the much-hated Juventini’s elimination, coach Massimiliano Allegri must probably be thinking that yes, maybe karma is a boomerang. His mind cannot but go back to four days ago, when a Juventus side filled with substitutes succumbed 1-2 to a relegation-battling SPAL in Serie A Round 31.
All the Old Lady needed to celebrate their 8th Scudetto in a row was grabbing one point in Ferrara. But Juve’s second lines were stunned by SPAL as the Biancazzurri came back from a 0-1 gap, much to the fury of the other teams fighting to remain in Serie A. (which all had something to say about the Bianconeri’s alleged acquiescence)
Allegri’s strategy, believe it or not, must simply have been to keep his best forces fresh for the second leg of the battle with Ajax, as last week’s 1-1 draw at the Johann Cruijff Arena was leaving no room for distraction. And still, the plan’s meager outcome was Juventus missing their first Scudetto match-point, scoring the second loss in a row for the first time in two years, and ultimately earning a premature elimination on the road to their unattainable Holy Grail.
Full credit to Ajax anyway, a traditional member of the football aristocracy which have been through some pretty dark times, and only recently re-started to make European headlines with a team packed with young lions, from Moroccan starlet Hakim Ziyech, to Serbian striker Dusan Tadic, without forgetting David Neres from Brazil – whose goal to Juve in the 1st leg cancelled Cristiano Ronaldo’s initial lead. Last night’s shimmering win in Turin proved that their 1-4 away thrashing of Real Madrid in the Round of 16 was by no means a case.
Juventus, on the other hand, paid the price of a weak opposition in Serie A, where they hammered every opponent in the season – up to the point of gaining a +21 margin over pursuant Napoli. There was just some minimal tension in the whole Bianconeri’s league run, and when you end up having only three-four key games in a season where something is really at stake – it is quite easy to fail one of them. Which is exactly what happened at the Allianz Stadium last night, where a pale, colorless copy of Max Allegri’s steamroller gave way to Ajax despite taking the lead first, and despite the visitors showing not to have done their homework about Cristiano Ronaldo.
Last Wednesday in Amsterdam, Juventus’ Number 7 had cut through the opponent defense like a knife through butter, catching a cross by Joao Cancelo to head his side in front. One would expect the Amsterdammers would take some counter measures in the retour match, but no, Ajax didn’t learn the lesson, and left Ronaldo free to use his head again to put the home side ahead in the 27th minute.
Doubts regarding an alleged foul by CR7 were cancelled as referee Clement Turpin consulted the VAR before allowing the goal. The white-and-blacks’ lead lasted only a few minutes however, as Donny Van de Beek equalized for his side making the best out of a pass by Hakim Ziyech. The Bianconeri protested on grounds of a possible offside position, but Turpin’s VAR’s approach was solomonic, and confirmed the Dutch goal too.
Allegri played his trump card after half time, sending in Moise Kean for an evanescent Paulo Dybala, but the 20-year-old Azzurro didn’t produce more than a single shot out of target. As Ajax’s pressure increased, goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny kept his side afloat twice, first stopping a close-distance shot by Ziyech, and then raising above the crossbar a curl by Van de Beek.
The Polish goalie couldn’t do anything however, when in the 66th minute captain Matthijs De Ligt stood over dazed defenders Mattia Rugani and Alex Sandro to deliver the decisive header into Juventus’ goal.
Ajax went even close to round up, as the home side let themselves go to a confused forcing, which resulted in leaving more room for the Lancieri’s (as they are known in Italy) counterattacks. Ziyech tried to put the cherry on top of a sumptuous performance, whipping the ball in Szczesny’s top corner – only to see his feat disallowed on grounds of offside.
Juventus used their last forces to protest at an alleged handball in the Dutchies’ box, which Turpin dismissed without even recurring to the technology aid. That was the end of their Champions League adventure, still too soon for a fan base who is full with domestic wins, but desperately hunger for European achievements.
The Bianconeri will likely go on to celebrate their 8th Serie A title in a row this coming weekend. That’s another record. But not what they were hoping for, especially since a gentleman named Cristiano Ronaldo landed in Turin with the sole purpose of breaking the European curse.
April 16, 2019 – UEFA Champions League 2018-19 Quarter Finals
JUVENTUS-AJAX 1-2 (Ajax advance 2-3 on aggregate)
SCORERS: 28′ Cristiano Ronaldo (J), 34′ Van de Beek (A), 66′ De Ligt (A)
|JUVENTUS (4-3-3): Szczesny; De Sciglio (64′ Cancelo), Bonucci, Rugani, Alex Sandro; Emre Can, Pjanic, Matuidi; Bernardeschi (80′ Bentancur), Dybala (46′ Kean), Cristiano Ronaldo (Pinsoglio, Khedira, Barzagli, Spinazzola) Coach: Allegri|
|AJAX (4-2-3-1): Onana; Veltman, De Ligt, Blind, Mazraoui (11′ Sinkgraven, 82′ Magallàn); De Jong, Schone; Ziyech (88′ Huntelaar), Van de Beek, Neres; Tadic (Varela, Dolberg, De Wit, Ekkelenkamp) Coach: ten Hag|
REFEREE: Turpin (France)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Emre Can, Cristiano Ronaldo (J)