Ajax’s stars are going through a “beautiful period” as they prepare to face a similar challenge to the last time the club reached the Champions League quarter-finals.
When the Dutch giants last walked out in the last eight in Europe’s elite club competition, it was against the great AC Milan in San Siro in 2003.
Now, they welcome Serie A champions Juventus to Amsterdam on Wednesday looking to cause another major shock.
Ajax fell heartbreakingly short 16 years ago, sunk by Jon Dahl Tomasson’s 91st-minute winner in a 3-2 loss, and this time they meet a Juve side expected to be led by a modern-day great in Cristiano Ronaldo, though the Portugal captain has been struggling with a thigh injury.
Former Ajax goalkeeper Joey Didulica, on the bench on that day in Milan, remembers that Champions League run fondly and believes the current squad – blessed with talents like Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt – are also going through the most enjoyable part of their careers.
“My favourite time of my career was that growing phase, where you were sort of every week, every month, you’re bettering your career so that climb, it’s a pure, natural, beautiful period in your career,” he told Omnisport. “But it’s when you actually establish your career and you sort of hit the top, the pinnacle, that’s when things like doubt start creeping in and [thinking], ‘Am I as good as I was?’ These sort of comments you sort of play in your head.
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) April 1, 2019
“That’s the scary part of your career, where you’re trying to sustain how good you are. But the growth, and coming up, that for me was the best period of my career. That’s where these boys at Ajax are at now, they’re all growing in their careers.
“They haven’t reached the pinnacle, there’s no one going down on the way out, except for say [Dusan] Tadic, but he’s actually doing really well with this team.
“So, it’s a really special moment for these boys and I can imagine what they’re going through because we as a group went through the same thing.”
Then, it was the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (then 21), Rafael van der Vaart (20), Wesley Sneijder (18), Cristian Chivu (22) and Andy van der Meyde (23).
Now, De Jong (21), De Ligt (19), Donny van de Beek (21), David Neres (22), Noussair Mazraoui (21) and the 30-year-old Tadic are leading the way.
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) April 1, 2019
“There was such a freedom and Ronald Koeman was great for the bunch of boys that we had because he wasn’t strict, he let the boys just express themselves,” Didulica said of the 2002-03 coach and squad. “We were structured, but not overly structured like a [Louis] van Gaal [team] for instance. Our boys absolutely enjoyed playing under him, he loved that sort of camaraderie.
“I remember going up to him and saying, ‘I feel sick, I think I’ve got food poisoning’ and he goes, ‘Joey, it’s just nerves’ and he was right. As soon as the game started I felt good. He was brilliant for the boys.”
Ajax came through a pool that included Inter and Lyon in 2002-03 and then the second group stage, finishing behind Valencia and ahead of Arsenal and Roma.
“The Arsenal team was a special team. They had phenomenal players too within their group,” Didulica said. “Even Valencia back when I played that game, they were Spanish champions, the year before they were in the Champions League final. That was meant to be one of Spain’s best teams the way they were playing under [Rafael] Benitez.
“I think there was Roma. A very good Lyon team as well, which we beat away from home.”
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) March 5, 2019
This season, Ajax made the most of an easier task, finishing second to Bayern Munich and ahead of Benfica and AEK Athens in Group E.
But an incredible 5-3 aggregate success over three-time defending champions Real Madrid in the last 16 will go down in Champions League folklore.
And if they manage to upset Ronaldo and Juventus, this period in their careers could be the most beautiful of all.
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