Undoubtedly, Ajax have been the most surprising team in the UEFA Champions League during the current 2018-19 season. The Dutch giants have been turning head all over Europe with their play and despite having a relatively inexperienced, young squad, they’re 90 minutes away from securing a place in the tournament’s semifinals.
Of course, reaching that goal won’t be easy since the current Eredivisie leaders will play against Juventus. Following the 1-1 draw in the first leg at the Johan Cruyff ArenA, everything will be decided at the Juventus Stadium… a venue where The Old Lady hasn’t lost in quite a while. In fact, the Italian giants have lost only three of 37 European fixtures at their current home since its 2011 opening (W22, D12, L3).
From Ajax’s perspective, the question should be quite simple. How can they effectively stop Juventus and reach the tournament’s semifinals for the first time since the 1996-97 season? Here are three things they must do to accomplish that goal.
Stop Cristiano Ronaldo
Yes, the first one seems obvious. But it should take even more relevance when it comes to the Champions League. The Portuguese superstar is the all-time leading scorer of the competition with 125 goals, and has been instrumental in Juventus’ recent run of positive results. In fact, he’ been directly involved in each of Juventus’ seven goals in the competitions (five strikes, two assists).
In order to stop him, the centre-back duo of Matthijs de Ligt – who’s been linked with a Juventus switch for this next summer – and Daley Blind will need to be at their best. But the whole defence must step their game up, especially considering the absence of Nicolas Tagliafico due to suspension.
Neutralise Miralem Pjanic
Cristiano Ronaldo gets the praises for his goals and other players, such as Paulo Dybala and Giorgio Chiellini, are heralded as some of the best in the world in their respective positions. But Juventus has a key player that runs the entire engine from midfield while making a positive impact on both ends of the pitch week in and week out. He goes by the name of Miralem Pjanic.
Simply put, Ajax need to annul Pjanic’s influence if they want to have any hope of reaching the semifinals. The Bosnian international pulls the strings of the side from his deep-lying playmaker role, and he often creates spaces for the attacking players with his precise passing that tends to picks defences apart. But how can Juventus neutralize a player who often averages almost 70 to 80 touches per game?
That’s Erik ten Hag job, but there are alternatives. One would be to crowd the middle of the pitch with defensive-minded players, and the other one would be to mark him individually. It remains to be seen whether Frenkie de Jong will be at 100%, but he is the best-suited to fill that task. Can the future Barcelona star respond to the job? If he does, then Ajax’s chances of pulling the upset would grow considerably.
Wait for an inspired night for the attacking trio
David Neres scored a goal in the first leg, but the Brazilian didn’t do much during the rest of the game. Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic also failed to make much of an impact. And things are simple when it comes to Ajax and their attack. If Tadic is off, the whole team feels his absence. He’s undoubtedly the key member of the side… something he backs up with 32 goals in 48 appearances across all competitions.
Penetrating Juventus’ defensive line is not an easy thing to do. However, they already proved to be capable in the first leg of this tie. Knowing they have the disadvantage of an away goal against them, Ajax must do SOMETHING on the final third if they want to pull the upset against Juve. And what better way to do so than waiting for an inspired effort from their attacking line?
It would be the perfect way to get past one of the title favourites and sneak into the Top 4.
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