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Ajax usher Juventus out of Champions League quarterfinals

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Juve struck first but in the end were comprehensively beaten by the Dutch upstarts.

Juventus v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

This was supposed to be the year. After spending an ungodly amount of money to bring Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus, it was assumed that Juventus’ long drought in the UEFA Champions League would soon come to an end. The team had been beaten finalists in two of the last four years. Ronaldo, surely, was the final piece of the puzzle to bring the cup with the big ears back to Turin.

But, the reality was far different.

All Ronaldo did was paper over the cracks of a roster that has some serious flaws. And in the Champions League quarterfinals, Ajax — the one-time European giants making a Cinderella run in an era when the game has passed them by — exposed those flaws in a major way. For long stretches of both legs they played Juve off the field, while the seven-time Italian champions showed themselves to be over-reliant on Ronaldo, distressingly unfit, and completely deficient in midfield.

It’s all the more galling considering the fact that Juventus went into the game holding the advantage on away goals and scored the opening goal half an hour in, only to gift their opponents the equalizer within minutes and then completely disappear in the second half, capitulating 2-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate.

Injuries were once again a big talking point going in for Juventus. Giorgio Chiellini couldn’t get back on the field in time from a calf injury suffered in training before the first leg, and Mario Mandzukic was also out of the squad after capitulating to the effects of a knee injury that he’d been nursing for some weeks. Douglas Costa’s electrifying cameo in Amsterdam would not be repeated, as he was again on the training table in the latest chapter of a lost season. Sami Khedira, Mattia Perin, and Martin Caceres also missed out, while Daniele Rugani went in playing through pain.

Massimiliano Allegri approached the game with his typical 4-3-3 formation. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, behind the back four of Mattia De Sciglio, Leonardo Bonucci, Rugani, and Alex Sandro. Emre Can returned from an ankle sprain to join Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. In the absence of Mandzukic Paulo Dybala was sent out as a false nine (and with the captain’s armband), flanked by Federico Bernardeschi and Ronaldo.

Ajax’s Erik ten Hag stayed with his own mainstay, the 4-2-3-1, with one change from the first leg. Andre Onana took his usual place as the goalkeeper. Left back Nicolas Tagliafico was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, so Noussair Mazraoui joined Joel Veltman, Matthijs de Ligt, and Daley Blind in defense. Lasse Schone and Frenkie de Jong again formed the double pivot in midfield behind the line of Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek, and David Neres. Dusan Tadic again served as the striker.

The early phases of the game saw Juve control the ball for a good stretch of time, while Ajax was delivered an early blow when Mazraoui badly twisted his ankle in a challenge with Dybala. The Moroccan tried to go on but was in clear discomfort and in the ninth minute crumpled to the ground for good. ten Hag was forced to introduce Daley Sinkgraven to replace him.

The opening phases turned into a midfield battle with little threat to goal on either end. Juve got the better of these exchanges, but couldn’t quite get the final ball together. Emblematic of this was a great run by Bernardeschi, who pounced on a loose ball in the 18th minute but was run down just before he was able to spring a pass for Ronaldo.

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

Despite Juve’s general advantage in the early stages, it was the visitors who managed to register the game’s first shot, with Neres squeezing through after playing a one-two, but his shot was blocked by Can and van de Beek could only vault the ricochet over the bar from close in. Juve responded within 60 seconds, with Dybala meeting a Sandro chest pass with a half-volley after a corner, but Onana flew to pluck it out of the air.

It was another corner in the 28th minute that gave Juve their lead. It was set up by Bernardeschi, who burst forward but had his shot blocked by Blind. Pjanic’s delivery was into a good area, and Ronaldo was wide open to slam a header past Onana. Ajax players immediately began waving their arms and screaming at the referee, the Frenchman Clement Turpin, over a foul in the box, and Turpin eventually did go to review the play on the VAR screen at pitchside. A quick check showed that Veltman had not been fouled by Bonucci but was in fact shoved to the ground by de Ligt before getting caught by Bonucci’s forearm as he tumbled to the ground. The goal stood, and Juve looked to be on their way to the semifinals for the third time in six years.

But it wasn’t to be.

Pjanic’s snap-shot on a loose ball was claimed by Onana, and almost immediately Ajax put the quarterfinal in a flat-footed tie. The equalizer was practically gifted to them when Bernardeschi failed to get upfield after blocking a cross. The ball fell to Ziyech, whose speculative shot pinged into the path of van de Beek, who was well onside thanks to the retreating winger. The rest of the Juventus defense stopped playing assuming he was off, and even Szczesny was a little flat-footed as the midfielder slotted home to make the score 1-1. Juve had led for six minutes.

Juve had a chance to get back on top six minutes after that, when Can surged out of midfield with the ball, but he carried it a little too long and then got things badly wrong with his last touch to lose the ball in the box.

Juve fans had a distressing sight just as stoppage time began when Dybala pulled up and grabbed his thigh. The much-maligned Argentine hadn’t looked fancy, but had done a lot of grunt work trying to hold the ball up and keep possession. He finished the half but couldn’t go past halftime and was replaced by Moise Kean as the teams came out for the second period.

That second half turned out to be forgettable in the extreme.

The tone was set seven minutes in, when a terrible giveaway by Pjainc triggered a powerful Ajax counter. Neres, who had scored the equalizer last Wednesday night, stormed forward and the ball worked its way to Zieych, who was denied at point blank range by Szczesny, who was moving to his right but managed to stick a hand straight up into the air in order stop the shot and then smother it.

Up to that point the only Ajax shot on target had been their goal, but things would get rougher. A Juventus team that had pressed hard in the first half to try to deny Ajax the kind of flowing play that they preferred found themselves pressed in the second, and they constantly lost the ball and saw it rush back the other way, forcing the defense to scramble back to cover. van de Beek looked for a second in the 57th minute but was denied by a flying Szczesny, who tipped it over the bar with one hand.

What might have been Juve’s best chance of the half came just after the hour, when Ronaldo took a ball down with pinpoint control and sent Kean through into the box, but the teenager could only fire wide at the near post while pressured by de Ligt. That was followed immediately by another Ajax counter that would have resulted in an easy tap-in for Ziyech had it not been for a full-stretch interception by Pjanic, who tipped the ball behind for a corner.

The chances kept coming for Ajax, but it was a corner kick of their own that finally made the pressure pay. The delivery came from Schone, and it was de Ligt — who will almost certainly be the subject of a concerted effort by Juve to sign him come the summer — taking the chance. Bonucci tried to move up to attack it but ended up in a weird no-man’s land, while Sandro and Rugani both attacked it but got in each other’s way, allowing de Ligt to get between them and bounce it past Szczesny.

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

Juve had 23 minutes to respond with two goals in order to advance — but never looked like coming close. The closest they came was with 15 minutes left. It was created by substitute Joao Cancelo, but his cross was headed wide — thought not by that much — by Kean. Ronaldo tried an off-balance shot two minutes later but had it blocked wide for a corner.

But these were outliers. Ajax dominated the rest of the match. In fact, they really should have had a third and even a fourth goal, but without a real target man in the side they constantly overplayed their passes, allowing Juve to scramble it clear. Ziyech thought he had the tie totally sewn up in the 80th minute with a stunning curler, but he was flagged offside, a ruling that was upheld after a radio check with the VAR officials.

The home fans thought they might have been sent a lifeline just as normal time expired when a cross from Rodrigo Bentancur hit Blind’s arm in the box, but Turpin didn’t make a call. He checked with the VAR officials via radio but didn’t view the play himself, satisfied that they agreed with him that his original ruling, which was that the ball had hit Blind in the chest before it got him in the arm, was correct.

And so ended the first — and maybe best? — chance Juventus had at the Champions League with Ronaldo in the team, and the team’s future is now in a state of real uncertainty.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Without him Ajax would’ve won by three goals or more. The saves he made on Ziyech and van de Beek were fantastic.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 5.5. Relatively steady for defense, although he could have also done a better job in the offside trap on the equalizer—even if Bernardeschi hadn’t been there, van de Beek would have been onside anyway thanks to him. Also pitched in a key pass.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Whiffed at the ball on de Ligt’s winner, and wasn’t able to trouble Ajax much with any balls over the top.

DANIELE RUGANI - 5.5. Was having a fairly workmanlike night until the winner, when he simply had to do better.

ALEX SANDRO - 6. Made a good contribution on defense, leading the team with six tackles and four interceptions. Wasn’t able to do much down the left moving forward though, and faded as an attacking option late.

EMRE CAN - 6. Buzzed around the midfield trying to regain the ball and kept up the pressure well, but muffed a chance to retake the lead when he really should have pulled the trigger sooner.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Had four key passes, but faded badly as the game progressed and again failed to impose his passing will on the midfield.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Another good effort trying to regain the ball, but couldn’t do much to help in the attack.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4.5. Poor from Berna. He only attempted 19 passes all game — and completed less than 70 percent of them — and took far too long to make his decisions. He’s been generally disappointing since his incredible outing against Atletico Madrid last month.

PAULO DYBALA - 6. He’s going to get a lot of flack for not threatening the goal as much, but he did a lot of yeoman’s work up top, holding possession on multiple occasions, and he might have opened the scoring if his volley had had more power. It’s impossible to say for sure that his exit from the game was the turning point, but the team was definitely different without him there.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Excellent finish off the corner and worked hard, but ultimately didn’t get much in the way of service when the situation was most dire. Also made a pair of key passes in buildup play.

SUBS

MOISE KEAN - 5.5. Hard to judge him when he had so little service. Szczesny probably touched the ball more than he did in the second half, but he couldn’t get either of his opportunities on target.

JOAO CANCELO - 5.5. Nearly gifted a goal after triggering an Ajax counter, but probably put the best balls into the box that the team had in the second half.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Tried to inject some kind of energy with fresh legs, but couldn’t do much in his 10 minutes on the field.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

We’re back here now.

In a vacuum, Allegri didn’t make many bad decisions Tuesday night. Starting De Sciglio over Cancelo was a good move — it gave him a second attack-oriented switch to make with Costa and Mandzukic out and presented more solid defensive cover. Using Dybala as a false nine also had logic behind it: Kean’s explosiveness would have been well-utilized coming on later in the game against more tired legs, but Dybala’s injury forced his hand a little early — although it’s impossible to say whether that would have had much impact given how little service the forwards got in this game.

On a more macro level, there will again be questions about whether Allegri will be the coach once the season is over. There are certainly big questions to answer. Chief among them are why the team seems to play timid — especially once they get a lead — despite the coach’s repeated exhortation to play braver football in his press conferences. In the last two years Allegri hasn’t gone all-out in a game unless he has absolutely had to. It’s almost like the hammering Juve took in the Champions League final two years ago, which the team reached on the back of Allegri’s “mad experiment” with the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” formation, scared him out of that kind of attacking mindset and that that caution has rubbed off on his players.

If he were to stay, he would need to do some major work changing the team’s mentality from one that does just enough and then defends for its life to one that goes for the throat.

Also of major concern — and if Juve were to part ways with Allegri this summer this would, in my eyes, be the most valid reason why — is why so many important players came down with so many injuries at such a critical junction of the season. Mario Mandzukic had a huge workload at the beginning of the year, and the stress of that — plus a run to the World Cup final that involved three extra time games — seems to have taken a real toll on him, because he’s been diminished since Christmas, and it seems to have finally come to roost in that knee injury. Chiellini is one of the few people in the team that has been rotated on a regular basis, and even he came down with a soft tissue injury in training last week. This has been a constant issue with Allegri since his days managing AC Milan, and over the last few years the injury list has limited his options in the biggest games. With a roster that does rely to a degree on older players like Chiellini and Ronaldo (who also had an inexplicably large workload this season), that has to change if he remains in his post.

LOOKING AHEAD

All we have to look forward to this point is the official clinching of scudetto No. 8, which will happen the next time Juventus win or draw. The first opportunity for that will come Saturday when they welcome Fiorentina to the Allianz Stadium. A week later they head to the San Siro for the second Derby d’Italia of the season.