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Juve take home a draw from excellent Ajax

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The hosts were by and large the better team, but Juve have a precious away goal and go into the second leg in far better shape than they were in the last round.

Ajax v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

In their last three Champions League ties, Juventus could have been said to have been behind after the first leg. There were, of course, the 2-0 and 3-0 deficits that they faced against Atletico Madrid in this year’s round of 16 and Real Madrid in last year’s quarterfinal, respectively, and they could technically have been described as behind on away goals after Tottenham Hotspur left Turin with a 2-2 draw in last year’s round of 16.

It’s nice, then, to be able to claim, for the first time since 2017, that they were in better position than their opponents after the first leg. Yes, you have to use away goals to say it after a 1-1 draw against Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena on Wednesday night, but Juve are still in a position to dictate the second leg after claiming a precious away goal — something they failed to do six weeks ago in Madrid.

That’s not saying the second leg will be easy — not by any stretch of the imagination. This Ajax team is young, massively talented and, after dismissing three-time defending champions Real Madrid in the round of 16 by turning around a 2-1 home loss with a 4-1 win at the Bernabeu, they are supremely confident. They played excellent football and made Juve suffer for long stretches of the game, but even without an injured Giorgio Chiellini the Bianconeri were able to withstand the storm, only conceding on a boneheaded mistake by Joao Cancelo in the opening seconds of the second half. What might be of more concern was the fact that Juve were unable to break Ajax’s press or string many passes together, something that Massimiliano Allegri will have to figure out in the second leg in order to get to the semifinals for the third time in six years.

Allergi was faced with a daunting task when Chiellini suffered a calf injury in training on Monday. With Martin Caceres injured and Andrea Barzagli only just coming back from yet another layoff, it would have to fall to Daniele Rugani to partner Leonardo Bonucci in central defense — his first start in a Champions League knockout game. The two were bracketed by Cancelo and Alex Sandro to form the back four in front of Wojciech Szczesny in goal. Rodrigo Bentancur started in the stead of Emre Can, who sprained his ankle against AC Milan on Saturday. He was joined by Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the starting lineup for the first time since injuring himself on international duty, joining Federico Bernardeschi and Mario Mandzukic up front to complete Allegri’s 4-3-3.

Ajax’s Erik ten Hag responded with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Andre Onana started in goal. He was protected by Joel Veltman, Daley Blind, 19-year-old super-prospect (and Juve transfer target) Matthijs de Ligt, and the similarly in-demand Nicolas Tagliafico — the latter three of whom were all a booking away from being suspended for the second leg. Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong joined Lasse Schone in the double pivot, while Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek, and David Neres formed a bank behind Dusan Tadic.

Juve were the first team to make a chance. There weren’t two minutes on the clock when Bentancur tenaciously kept hold of possession and fed Bernardeschi in the left channel. The winger unleashed a powerful, swerving effort that rose just over the top corner with Onana leaping at full stretch — and perhaps beaten. But from that point on Ajax started ramping up their press, and Juve had real trouble dealing with it. In the sixth minute they forced a giveaway before Ziyech got a chance from the attacking right, rippling the side netting with a low effort.

The Ajax press really unnerved their visitors. Juve opted not to play the ball over the top to get out of it, instead trying to pass their way through. This tended to end in one of two ways: with a Juventus player making an inaccurate pass, or a Juventus player getting caught in possession. One way or the other, the ball kept heading back in the direction of Szczesny’s goal with alarming frequency. One of the few times it did look like they were about to get out of it, a miscommunication between Sandro and Matuidi led to a counter that saw Ziyech force Szczesny into his first save of the night, an easy effort from a long-range shot.

Ajax v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

The Juve goal was under various degrees of siege for most of the half. In the 18th minute, an intricate sequence of passes on the right side set up Ziyech for an impressive curler that was palmed over the bar by a flying one-handed save by Szczesny. van de Beek nearly opened the scoring on 24 minutes when he got onto a ball in the middle of the box and put his shot a hair’s breadth past the post. Rugani was then called into action to bail a good cross from Neres out for a corner in the six-yard box. Juve managed to break into the Dutch dominance with a counter just before the half-hour mark when Bentancur pounced on a loose ball and sent Bernardeschi on his way, but the forward hesitated just a tad and gave de Jong the opportunity to slide in to tackle the ball out for a corner.

Things finally settled down after that, and some chances started to coming from Juventus. Bentancur went wide after being set up by a Ronaldo back-heel, then Ronaldo headed a good Matuidi ball back across the face of the goal to Bernardeschi, who ran it down and fired it on the turn, only for it to go just wide of the post.

After a rough first period, Juve ended the half in style. It was Bentancur who was again in the middle of things, passing the ball to Ronaldo, who released Cancelo on the right side. Both Bentancur and Ronaldo continued their runs, and while the latter stayed central, the Uruguayan moved toward the near post, pulling de Ligt with him and leaving yards of space for Ronaldo to attack a good ball from Cancelo. His diving header was far too powerful for Onana, who got a hand to it but had no chance of stopping it. After being on the back foot for so much of the first half, Juve ended the first half with a 1-0 lead.

It was a lead they’d hold for all of about 50 seconds of game time.

Cancelo’s ball had provided the breakthrough, but he had been a disaster before that, losing defensive assignments and giving the ball away seemingly every time he touched it. The clock had barely started ticking in the second half when an Ajax defender hoofed the ball upfield along the sideline. Had Cancelo let the ball go it would have gone out for a Juve throw, but instead he played it. He was immediately jumped by Neres, who charged forward and buried a fantastic finish to Szczesny’s far post.

Ajax v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

The Bianconeri looked stunned, but they should have had the chance to go back ahead from the spot in the 53rd minute. Bernardeschi had curled a free kick into the box and gotten it to bounce in a good area in front of the goal, but no one was there to attack it—mainly because Tagliafico had grabbed a handful of Bentancur’s shoulder, hauling him to the ground. It was a clear penalty, but referee Carlos Del Cerro Grande of Spain, who was in charge of his first Champions League knockout game, didn’t make the call, and the VAR officials inexplicably declined to call for a review.

In need of some technique to break Ajax’s hold on the game, Allegri introduced a long-absent friend: Douglas Costa, who made his first appearance since suffering a leg injury against Parma in January. And while he didn’t immediately swing the balance, it was clear that he was the kind of guy the team needed on the field. Ajax still threatened, with Sandro throwing himself in front of a shot from Ziyech, Szczesny holding a rather tame shot from Veltman, and de Jong missing from a position where he really should have at least put the ball on target.

Costa’s first big moment came 10 minutes from time, when he attacked down the left side and wove his way through what seemed like the entire defense only to fire in a disappointing cross. Three minutes later, Ajax almost had a winner when substitute Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, another teenager making his Champions League debut, latched on to a back-heel pass by Tadic to snap off a shot, but Szczesny parried it away. Costa then nearly marked his return with style, turning Veltman inside out and powering past Ziyech, then driving into the box and unleashing a left-footed shot that beat Onana and slammed into the far post. Cancelo almost got back into the good graces two minutes later when a miscommunication between Onana and his defenders nearly let his cross bounce into the goal. Only a last-ditch parry by Onana kept the game tied.

Ajax had one last huff, practically walking the ball into the box in the second minute of stoppage time, but Rugani made a critical block on Tadic. Juve took the ball the other direction but they reigned in and held the ball, waiting for the final whistle and heading back home in six days just barely holding the edge in this quarterfinal tie.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Didn’t spill anything and commanded the area well, claiming any loose balls. Didn’t have any chance on Neres’ goal.

JOAO CANCELO - 4.5. Barring the six seconds that contained his assist, he was shockingly poor Wednesday night. Gave the ball away time and again, both through bad passes and getting caught in possession — like he was for Ajax’s goal — and was out of position on defense on multiple occasions. He can’t allow himself to lose focus like that at this level.

DANIELE RUGANI - 7. So many people moaned that Rugani would be the team’s downfall after Chiellini’s injury. Instead, he turned in a really good performance. Led the team with four clearances and was in the right position at the right time almost all night.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. He gets this grade because he was actually quite good defensively on the night. But if the reason Juventus sacrificed one of the most promising Italian defensive prospects in years to reclaim Bonucci was his passing — particularly when it came to getting out of pressure situations — you wouldn’t be blamed for asking where the hell that went after Wednesday’s game. Gave the ball away on misguided long balls repeatedly.

ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Did a good job in the back, but wasn’t able to do much offensively due to the Ajax press, although he did add a key pass to his tally. His biggest contribution came in sealing off shooting opportunities, being credited with three blocks.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. Fought for the ball relentlessly in midfield. He led the team with a whopping seven tackles and added in two interceptions. He was also instrumental in Juve’s goal, starting the move with a simple pass before opening up the space for Ronaldo by making a great run to the near post that pulled the defense apart. Easily his best game in months.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Didn’t do badly in defense, making five interceptions, but he was caught out in possession a bunch and wasn’t able to use his skills to break the press or to give Juve any extended periods of possession. Not his best game.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Did his best to get into the faces of Ajax’s midfielders, and made three interceptions. Left with what looked like either a cramp or maybe a muscle problem — which is one of the last things Juve need right now.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Started out strong but faded as the game went along and wasn’t able to do much in the second half.

MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Won five aerial duels but barely got a touch on the ball and only completed 47.1 percent of his passes. Not a good day for the Mandzubeast.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Led the team in key passes and scored with a flying header. He wasn’t in the game for long stretches as Juve were pinned back.

SUBS

DOUGLAS COSTA - 7.5. Hit his stride in the last 10 minutes and Ajax didn’t look like they had someone that could deal with his pace and dribbling technique. Came oh-so-close to putting Juve back in the lead with a shot off the post.

Ajax v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

PAULO DYBALA - 4. Did a whole lot of nothing when coming on with 20 minutes left. He was the guy Juve needed to connect the midfield and the forwards and he just couldn’t do that during his time on the field.

SAMI KHEDIRA - NR. Sent on to bleed clock in stoppage time.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Unlike the first leg of the Atletico Madrid tie, this time Max Allegri went with Cancelo on the right to try to add some attacking impetus to the lineup, but the Portugal international had a horrible game outside of his contribution to Ronaldo’s goal.

His plan to try to contain Frenkie de Jong ended up being a failure after the Dutchman sniffed it out and countered it, as he explained during his press conference after the match. But one thing could counter the young midfielder is to break Ajax’s press game and maintain possession for more than a few seconds, something that no one could really do, especially in the second half. It could mean a switch to putting balls over the top for some old English kick-and-run, or it could mean bringing in someone like Douglas Costa from the start next week. It was clear that Ajax’s defenders didn’t have an answer to him at the end of the game, and if he’s built up enough stamina, starting him could be a boon to the attack. With Tagliafico suspended do to yellow card accumulation for the second leg, stationing him on the right and unleashing him on his replacement might be a recipe for an early goal or two.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve have a slight edge going into the second leg, but winning the return match is still the most direct way to win the tie. A goalless draw would also do the trick, given Juve’s away goal. A 1-1 scoreline after 90 minutes would instigate extra time, while any draw 2-2 or higher would see Ajax flip the away goals and go ahead. Obviously, losing the game loses the tie as well.

As for the team’s very next game, Juve will travel to the Stadio Paolo Mazza to face off against SPAL on Saturday knowing that all they need is a draw to wrap up their eighth straight scudetto with a record six games to spare.