Ajax-Juventus: A battle of greats and a clash of philosophies

(Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images) /

Can a talented, young Ajax squad continue to upset the modern European club hierarchy and return to the summit of the game?

Following their upset elimination of Real Madrid, Ajax’s young guns look to continue disrupting the hierarchy of European soccer royalty as they face another blue blood club in Juventus. In a different day and age, this game would have been a battle of established European giants. During this current era of unbridled transfer fee spending, the former Dutch giants have been bouncing around between the Champions League group stage and the Europa League elimination rounds prior to this season’s magical run. Featuring some of the most coveted young talents in club soccer such as Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and David Neres, Erik ten Hag’s men have become the exciting, surprise package of this year’s competition.

These two sides met in the 1996 Champions League final, and there are some interesting parallels to draw as Ajax, at that time a bona fide soccer superpower having won the prior season’s Champions League, dominated European club soccer thanks to an incredible generation of homegrown players that would go on to win many trophies at different clubs around the continent. Unsurprisingly, the current version of the club also features some exceptional homegrown talent.

The Juventus of the mid-1990s was relying on a mix of experience peppered with some youth, featuring veteran defenders such as Ciro Ferrara and Paolo Sousa, wily veteran strikers with a knack for scoring (Gianluca Vialli) and some exciting up-and-coming stars (Alessandro del Piero).

The 2019 edition of Juventus also relies on smart, veteran defending (Giorgio Chielini and Leonardo Bonucci), crafty midfielders Paolo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic and of course aging goalscorers such as Mario Mandzukic and their talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo may be 34 years old, but he’s X factor in this and any Champions League matchup, a star player whose ability to single-handedly determine the outcome of a game transcends generations.

For Ajax, the big difference between 2019 and 1996 is the understanding that this season’s run is a last hurrah. Some of their players have already been sold to bigger clubs (de Jong to Barcelona) and others (de Ligt) are clearly playing their last few weeks for the club. Hakim Ziyech, Neres and Nicolas Tagliafico are also likely to leave as well. Eliminating Real Madrid may have given Ajax the confidence to believe anything is possible this season. Couple that with the motivation of maximizing this special group’s tremendous potential over the course of the season and you have a recipe for another potential upset.

Overcoming Juventus may prove to be a much tougher obstacle. Unlike Real’s dreamy, prone-to-distraction defensive approach, Juventus are known for discipline at the back. Open space for the crafty Ajax midfielders and rejuvenated forward Dusan Tadic to operate in will be harder to come by. Facing a player like Ronaldo whose hat-trick against Atletico Madrid put Juventus through to the quarterfinals presents a completely new challenge for this talented but fairly inexperienced group.

On the other side, Juventus are also a team whose opportunity window is getting smaller, albeit for different reasons. Their defensive stalwarts, key to all their recent success are not getting younger. Ronaldo will be closer to 40 than 30 come next season, and was brought to Juventus with the goal of winning that elusive Champions League title. With Real Madrid out of the way and facing one of the more beatable teams remaining (at least on paper), anything but progression from this stage will be seen as a tremendous failure.