Ajax bring breath of fresh air to Champions League
Ajax Amsterdam coach Erik ten Hag said his team would keep “pushing boundaries” after they brought a breath of fresh air to the Champions League by reaching the semi-finals on Tuesday.
Having knocked out Real Madrid with a 4-1 win at the Bernabeu in the previous round, Ajax came from behind to beat Juventus 2-1 in Turin and complete a remarkable 3-2 aggregate win in their quarter-final.
In doing so, they became the first team to reach the Champions League semi-finals after playing through three qualifying rounds.
Ajax began their campaign in the second qualifying round on July 25 — 10 days after the World Cup final — at home to Austrian side Sturm Graz, a game which attracted more than 50,000 fans.
In all, Tuesday’s game was their 16th in the competition this season, six more than Juventus.
“This team grows and grows. We know how to push boundaries every time. And with Tottenham or Manchester City there will be another challenge. We look forward to it,” said Ten Hag, whose side face one of the English pair in the next round.
“This is enjoyment. We had to survive their storm in the beginning. We had a hard time coming out of the pressure, but allowed Juventus almost nothing.
“In the second half we had three, four clearcut chances. I think we should have put the game to bed much faster. But I am happy and proud of my team.”
Despite the presence of the world’s top players and coaches, Europe’s flagship competition has been in danger of going stale over the last decade as it has become dominated by a handful of big-money clubs.
Remarkably, Ajax are the first team from outside England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France to reach the last four since their compatriots PSV Eindhoven 14 years ago.
Once regarded as a major power in European football, Ajax have in the last 10 years have become a feeder club, signing players at a young age, helping them mature and developing their game before selling them on.
Even so they have been able to build a young team that plays exciting, fluid football.
“It’s a result that is very important for Dutch football,” said Ten Hag.
“We are on the way back, the signs are there. We have incredible talents and for our nation, it will get better and better. We were not favourites, but with our philosophy, we again exceeded our limits.”
REUTERS/Writing by Brian Homewood, editing by Pritha Sarkar