Another superb away performance from surprise package Ajax blew away Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus on Tuesday. DW's Matt Pearson thinks, and hopes, they can go all the way in a tournament that has become a touch stale.
Half an hour into Tuesday's quarterfinal second legs, it all seemed so familiar. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had put their teams in charge of their ties and the marketer's dream of the two meeting for one more showpiece showdown amid endless, facile debates about which of the otherworldly pair is the best, was still very much alive.
But, Ajax hadn't read the script. Just as they did in the first leg, the Dutch side found a swift riposte to a Ronaldo header. This time Donny van de Beek was the man who did the damage, sweeping home after collecting an errant shot inside the box.
There was never even a hint of panic from this young side, perhaps partly because they've been here before. Erik ten Hag's men have trailed at the Bernabeu, the Allianz Arena and Benfica's Stadium of Light this season and avoided defeat on each occasion.
But just as in Madrid, that wasn't enough for this special team. The Old Lady of Italian football was made to feel her age in the second half. David Neres and Hakim Ziyech buzzed purposefully between the lines, Dusan Tadic acted as a silky link man, van de Beek prompted and probed and Matthijs de Ligt kept Ronaldo quiet before powering home the header that won the tie in the 67th minute.
No soft opponent
Despite getting the better of Bayern Munich in both their group games, only to come out with two ties, Ajax were seen by many as a kind draw, for first Real Madrid and then Juventus. They were no such thing. Just as in the last round, this was no fluke.
"We will go for it, we will give everything," said former Bayern reserve team boss ten Hag just before the game. "We have to set new limits. In a hostile atmosphere we have to do it. We have to play with belief and we can win." This was no idle boast, new limits are being set with every passing round.
With Frenkie de Jong having agreed a deal with Barcelona and sporting director Marc Overmars admitting "it will be impossible to keep this team together in the summer," it's sometimes difficult not to lament the fact that those clubs with the deepest pockets will soon pick apart this side, just as they did with the similarly thrilling Monaco outfit of 2016-17.
Now is not the time for such thoughts, because this is a team that can go all the way and emulate their famous predecessors of 1995. Two of the tournament favorites have already been exposed. Youth and freedom have trumped experience and know-how.
A tough path ahead
There will be bigger challenges ahead, with Manchester City possible semifinal opponents, but the belief flowing through the Eredivise side is clear to see, and it's a powerful force in knockout football. They are also playing with the freedom of an underdog who knows this is their only shot at unlikely glory. There's nothing to lose.
Whoever else joins Ajax and Barcelona, who cruised past Manchester United on the same night, in the last four, the Dutch outfit will be the outsiders. That won't trouble them and it should win them the support of any neutral.
With Real and Barcelona having won the last five Champions Leagues and only one team from outside La Liga, the Premier League, the Bundesliga and Serie A (Porto in 2004) to have won the trophy since the class of '95, Europe's biggest club competition has kept its quality but become a little stale and predictable.
Ajax's fun run has already won them admirers — and probably a few million euros more for some of their prize assets. If they can win in Madrid yet again on June 1, it will mean so much more. Victory for such an outsider would offer fresh hope that even in football's financial age, a belief in youth, a surplus of spirit and a relentlessly positive approach can bridge the gap. Here's hoping.