Sports Mole previews Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final first leg between Ajax and Juventus in Amsterdam, including predictions and team news.
Ajax are competing at this stage of the competition for the first time in 16 years, whereas favourites Juventus are into the quarters for the third year running.
This is shaping up to be a memorable campaign for Ajax as they are still on course for an unlikely treble with less than two months of the season to go.
As well as making it through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, the Dutch side sit top of the Eredivisie table on goal difference and have a domestic cup final clash against Willem II to look forward to on May 5.
Saturday’s 4-1 league win over their cup final opponents, coupled with PSV Eindhoven’s 3-3 draw with Vitesse the following day, means that Ajax occupy first place in the Eredivisie for the first time since May 2016.
That is a staggering statistic considering Ajax’s stature, though it is only now that their long-term planning is bearing fruit, with the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and David Neres – to name just three – clicking together perfectly.
Winning their first domestic title since 2014 is now the aim for Erik ten Hag, as well as getting the job done against Willem when the sides next face off in a month’s time, but supporters can also still dream of success in the biggest club competition of them all.
Ajax are the sole side still involved in the Champions League who came through qualifying. Barely given a chance due to their underwhelming record on the European stage in recent years, the Amsterdam outfit remained unbeaten in the group phase and then knocked out defending champions Real Madrid in the first knockout round.
That 5-3 aggregate win over Madrid is made all the more special considering that Ajax lost the first leg 2-1 on home soil, having been cheated out of a positive result by the officials.
Not that it mattered, though, as Ten Hag’s men claimed one of the competition’s most famous results by travelling to the Bernabeu and winning 4-1, ending Los Blancos’ three-year reign as Europe’s most dominant force.
The last side to knock out the current holders of the Champions League was Atletico Madrid (vs. Barcelona) during the quarter-finals of the 2015-16 edition of the competition, going on to lose in the final against Real Madrid.
Reaching this year’s final in Madrid would be a mammoth achievement for the Dutch side and, having already overcome the competition favourites over two legs, there is no reason why they cannot keep their dreams alive by knocking out another heavyweight side.
Recent form in Champions League: WDWDLW
Recent form (all competitions): WWLWWW
This year’s round of 16 will be best remembered for providing some incredible second-leg turnarounds. Ajax battled back against Madrid and Manchester United also stunned Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes, which perhaps made Juventus’s equally-impressive turnaround against Atletico go under the radar.
Atletico have built a reputation for being incredibly tough to break down, so sitting on a 2-0 lead from the first leg it looked as though Juve’s European campaign was over at the first knockout round hurdle.
Step forward Cristiano Ronaldo, the player brought in for £100m for exactly these occasions. Ronaldo, unfairly criticised by some ahead of that match, produced yet another of his Champions League masterclasses by scoring a hat-trick and firing Juve through.
Not since between 1996 and 1999 have the Italian giants competed in the last eight for three seasons running, and they will now fancy their chances of reaching a third semi-final in five years, particularly with Ronaldo – a fitness doubt for Wednesday – in their ranks.
Juve can focus almost entirely on the Champions League as they are an incredible 20 points clear of second-placed Napoli in the Serie A standings. After suffering a first league loss of the season at Genoa before the international break, Massimiliano Allegri‘s side have hit back with three wins in a row.
The most recent of those victories came against AC Milan at the weekend, earning the three points through a Paulo Dybala penalty and another goal from Moise Kean, who has been in the headlines over the past week for the racial abuse aimed his way during the midweek win at Cagliari.
Retaining their league crown once again will not make this a successful campaign, though. The arrival of Ronaldo in a nine-figure deal last summer means that Allegri is tasked with going all the way in the Champions League, having come close to lifting the trophy a couple of times before.
Juve’s run was ended at this stage by Real Madrid 12 months ago as, despite recovering from a three-goal deficit, they came undone in the final seconds through a Ronaldo penalty. Now it is down to Ronaldo, should he be passed fit, to fire the Bianconeri past Ajax and into the semi-finals.
Recent form in Champions League: WLWLLW
Recent form (all competitions): WWLWWW
Ronaldo went off injured half an hour into Portugal’s 1-1 Euro 2020 qualifying draw with Serbia on March 25 and has not played since.
The ex-Madrid forward’s last outing for his club side was in the 3-0 win against Atletico, missing four matches since then, but he is expected to make his return from the thigh injury this week, possibly meaning a place on the bench for in-form Kean.
Only against Bayern Munich (nine) and his current side Juventus (10) has Ronaldo scored more Champions League goals than he has against Ajax (seven).
Alex Sandro missed out against Atletico because of suspension but is back available, meanwhile, and Sami Khedira is also back from injury.
Ten Hag is otherwise unlikely to tinker with his side, which should mean a start up top for Dusan Tadic, who produced the best performance of his career in the surprise win at the Bernabeu last month.
Four Ajax players, including Daley Blind, are one booking away from missing the return leg next week.
Ajax possible starting lineup:
Onana; Kristensen, De Ligt, Blind, Tagliafico; De Beek, De Jong, Schone; Ziyech, Tadic, Neres
Juventus possible starting lineup:
Szczesny; Cancelo, Bonucci, Chiellini, Sandro; Pjanic, Bentancur, Matuidi; Bernardeschi, Mandzukic, Ronaldo
Head To Head
Ajax and Juventus will meet for the ninth time in the European Cup and for the first time since November 2004.
The Dutch giants have not beaten their opponents in this competition since winning the 1973 European Cup final in Belgrade.
Juve are unbeaten in each of their last nine European matches against Ajax, including a 1-0 win when the sides last met in Amsterdam during a 2004-05 Champions League group match – Pavel Nedved scoring the only goal of the game.
We say: Ajax 1-2 Ronaldo
Ajax were brilliant across the two legs against Real Madrid and they have been in fine form domestically, too. Juventus managed to recover against Atletico in the last round and, boosted by the possible return of Ronaldo, they should have too much for their opponents in this first leg.