One of the most intriguing clashes of this year’s UEFA Champions League will be on show on Wednesday, when Ajax host Juventus in the quarter-final first leg.
Two of the four first leg quarter-final ties of the UEFA Champions League have already been played out. On Wednesday, the marquee fixture will pit Manchester United against Barcelona, but some of the focus will also be on the exciting Ajax side, which will welcome Juventus to the Johan Cruijff ArenA.
Ajax have been one of the surprise packages in the UEFA Champions League this season, having stood bravely to the challenge of Bayern Munich in the group stage, where they were runners-up behind the Bavarians by just two points. They then set up the quarter-final date with Juventus after completing a stirring comeback win over Real Madrid in the Round of 16.
Juventus too, had to come from behind to make it to the Last Eight stage, having been beaten 2-0 by Atletico Madrid in the first leg before a Cristiano Ronaldo ensured safe passage to the latest round. But, having lost their last two games on the road in the competition, the Bianconeri will be eager to get something out of their trip to Amsterdam.
As far as recent form is concerned, both teams have won seven and lost one of their last eight fixtures in all competitions. Both Ajax and Juventus are also perched atop their respective league table, although unlike their visitors, Erik ten Hag’s men do not have a comfortable position in the Eredivisie, leading PSV Eindhoven on goal difference.
Juventus beat Ajax 2-1 the last time they met in the Dutch capital, in the Round of 16 of the 2009-10 edition. Ahead of the latest meeting between the two sides, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the UEFA Champions League encounter.
Team News & Tactics
Erik ten Hag does not have many pressing concerns on his hands ahead of the visit of Juventus. On Wednesday, only Hassane Bande (calf) is unavailable due to injury, while Noussair Mazraoui is a major absentee for Ajax due to a one-match suspension owing to an accumulation of yellow cards.
The 21-year-old should be replaced by Joel Veltman on the right side of the Ajax defence. The rest of the team selection though, should be largely straightforward, with Matthijs de Ligt having Daley Blind as his partner in the central defensive partnership, while Nicolas Tagliafico will be the left-back.
Behind the defensive line, Andre Onana should be deployed between the sticks. In the middle of the park, Frenkie de Jong will be the orchestrator for the hosts, with Lasse Schone and Donny van de Beek being the workhorses in the middle of the park.
The onus though, will be on the attack to test the injury stricken Juventus defence. Dusan Tadic has led the line well for Ajax this season and the Serb will need to be clinical when presented with opportunities to score. David Neres and Hakim Ziyech will be just as key for the home side, with the duo looking to use their pace and trickery to test Bianconeri’s full-backs.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Onana; Veltman, de Ligt, Blind, Tagliafico; van de Beek, de Jong, Schone; Ziyech, Tadic, Neres
Massimiliano Allegri has been dealt a cruel blow only a day before Juventus pay Ajax a visit in Amsterdam. Giorgio Chiellini has picked up a calf injury in training, which will sideline him for at least the first leg, if not next week’s fixture at the Allianz Stadium.
In the absence of the veteran defender, Allegri has the option of using a formation with a back-three, but he indicated that with only three centre-backs at his disposal, he will leave one player on the bench. In Chiellini’s stead, Daniele Rugani will partner Leonardo Bonucci at the heart of the Juventus defence.
Flanking the two centre-backs should be Joao Cancelo and Alex Sandro, with Wojciech Szczesny lining up in goal for the visitors. Another fresh absentee for Juventus is Emre Can, whose absence means Sami Khedira, who was praised by Allegri during his pre-match press conference, will start in the middle of the park.
Miralem Pjanic will pull the strings as the deep lying playmaker while Blaise Matuidi will be the box-to-box midfielder, with Rodrigo Bentancur dropping to the bench. Up ahead in attack, the major talking point heading into Wednesday’s fixture was whether Cristiano Ronaldo would be available. And, Allegri confirmed that the Portuguese is fit and available.
Ronaldo should start on the left side of the Juventus attack, with Federico Bernardeschi likely to pip Paulo Dybala on the opposite flank. The final spot in the side will be a toss up between Mario Mandzukic and the in-form Moise Kean. But, with Allegri hinting that Kean might be benched, Mandzukic should lead the line for the visitors.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Szczesny; Cancelo, Bonucci, Rugani, Sandro; Khedira, Pjanic, Matuidi; Bernardeschi, Mandzukic, Ronaldo
- Ajax and Juventus will be meeting in the premier cup competition in Europe for the ninth time, last going head-to-head in the UEFA Champions League in November 2004. The Dutch side have not beaten the Bianconeri in the competition since winning the 1973 European Cup final in Belgrade (1-0).
- Ajax are the first Dutch side to reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League since PSV Eindhoven, back in the 2006-07 season. In fact, the Eredivisie giants have reached this stage for the first time since 2002-03, when they were eliminated by AC Milan.
- Juventus have won all four of the teams’ two-legged contests, most recently beating Ajax 2-1 in Amsterdam in the first leg of their 2009-10 UEFA Europa League Round of 32 tie and progressing after a goalless draw in Turin.
- Ajax have not won any of their last six home knockout games in the UEFA Champions League (D3 L3), with Borussia Dortmund the last side they managed to beat (1-0) in the 1995-96 quarter-final second leg (3-0 aggregate).
- Only Lionel Messi (11) has had a direct hand in more goals in this season’s Champions League than Ajax forward Dusan Tadic (nine – six goals, three assists).
Player to Watch
Matthijs de Ligt
One team’s good news could be another’s bad news. Cristiano Ronaldo, who was arguably someone Real Madrid missed the most in their embarrassing 4-1 defeat to Ajax in the Round of 16 second leg, is fit and available, meaning the Ajax defence will have to pull their weight, and some, against quite possibly the best ever player in UEFA Champions League history.
The player to take matters into his own hands on this front would be Ajax captain Matthijs de Ligt. Going up against Ronaldo is not something new for de Ligt, who was a colossal presence at the back for Netherlands in their 3-0 win over Portugal last year. And, another such performance is the need of the hour, if Ajax are to win the first leg.
Matthijs de Ligt is set to play one of the biggest games of his career. And, if he manages to perform at his best level and keep Ronaldo at bay, Ajax might just have taken a step closer to reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League.
Ajax 2-1 Juventus
Wednesday’s fixture presents a golden opportunity for Ajax, despite the return of Cristiano Ronaldo making it a daunting task for them. But, with Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini unavailable, the likes of Dusan Tadic, David Neres and Hakim Ziyech have the perfect opportunity to unleash their best on the weakened Bianconeri defence.
The presence of Ronaldo though, is indeed a concern for Ajax, but one they can tackle if they play smartly. Expect Erik ten Hag’s men to have a go at their visitors, with his side’s exciting attack managing to find the back of the net more than once on the night.
The Hard Tackle predicts Ajax to win by the odd goal to grab a slim advantage in the tie, although Juventus should score one away goal to take something positive back home ahead of next week’s second leg.