April 17 – They began their challenge back in the qualifying rounds when they were 250 to 1 outsiders. But now Ajax of Amsterdam, the pioneers of total football back in the 1970s, are just one round and two matches away from an unlikely place in this season’s Champions League final.
Victory over much-fancied Juventus in the semi-finals marks Ajax’s return to the last four of Europe’s premier competition for the first time since a team containing Danny Blind, Marc Overmars and Ronald de Boer were beaten in the 1997 semis – ironically by Juventus.
Ajax, who won the old European Cup three times in the 1970s and triumphed again in 1995, are the first team from outside the traditional top five European leagues to reach the Champions League semi-final since 2004-05, when fellow Dutch side PSV Eindhoven did so.
“It’s an unforgettable night for Ajax, we eliminated one of the favourites for the competition,” Ajax coach Erik ten Hag said after his side’s 2-1 win in Turin for a 3-2 aggregate success.
“We played with confidence and patience. With our footballing philosophy we can go beyond expectation, we have once again surpassed our limits. It’s very difficult to play against us and our philosophy.”
Even going behind to a goal from Cristiano Ronaldo in the first half didn’t faze Ajax’s young players as Donny van de Beek leveled shortly after and 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt scored the winner in the second half.
Incredibly, Ajax’s transfer spending this season has been roughly one fifth of that of Juve, the dominant force in Italian football whose signing of five-times World Player of the Year Ronaldo was interpreted as a statement of intent in terms of landing the Champions League title after a series of near-misses for the first time since 1996.
But once again those hopes were shattered by a side that have now knocked out three-time reigning champions Real Madrid and Juventus in quick succession, overshadowing Barcelona’s elimination of Manchester United on the same night.
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