Thursday, March 21, 2019

Ibrahimovic, Van der Vaart & Sneijder – Ajax´s last Champions League quarter-final

SoccerNews in Eredivisie 6 Mar 2019

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Ajax’s jaw-dropping rout of Champions League holders Real Madrid was 16 years in the making.

Prior to Tuesday’s unforgettable 4-1 humiliation of three-time reigning champions Madrid that sealed a 5-3 aggregate victory, Ajax had not been among the quarter-finalists of Europe’s premier club competition since 2002-03.

Led by Ronald Koeman that season and boasting emerging stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Nigel de Jong, Andy van der Meyde and Maxwell, Ajax fell to eventual champions AC Milan in the last eight.

Eredivisie champions in 2001-02, Ajax advanced from the first group phase along with Inter thanks to Swedish sensation Ibrahimovic.

Ibrahimovic – who would go on to join Serie A giants Juventus in 2004 – scored three goals in Group D as Ajax finished runners-up to Inter, while Van der Vaart added two of his own.

With the Champions League featuring a second group stage at the time – which included eight group winners and eight runners-up in four groups – Ajax were drawn with Arsenal, Valencia and Roma.

Ajax went through Group B as the only undefeated team, drawing five of their six matches to join winners Valencia in the knockout round.

The club’s only victory in Group B came at home to Roma on matchday two as Ibrahimovic – who finished the phase with two goals – and Jari Litmanen saw off Gabriel Batistuta and the Italians.

Ajax’s qualification was secured by their draw away to Roma and Valencia’s victory over Arsenal on the final matchday.

Their success pitted them against Italian powerhouses Milan in the quarter-finals.

Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan – headlined by Paolo Maldini, former Ajax star Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso and Andriy Shevchenko – were frustrated in a goalless draw on the road in Amsterdam on April 8, 2003.

Ajax travelled to San Siro just over a fortnight later and scored two away goals but it was not enough as the Rossoneri advanced all the way to the Champions League final.

Fast forward to this season, and Ajax’s famed production line, spearheaded by Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, has Erik ten Hag and the four-time European champions dreaming of something special.

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