Never mind the gaping difference in budgets; never mind the fairytale narrative that has captivated Europe. Ajax could not beat Juventus but, in one sense, they achieved what they set out to do. They made this a clash of equals, just like the European Cup finals the sides contested in 1973 and 1996, and will be far from cowed by going again in Turin next Tuesday.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s emphatic header, the last action of the first half, appeared to be the kind of ruthless, ice-blooded moment Juve contrive like nobody else. But David Neres responded straight after the restart and, after an intoxicating second period, the only certainty was that the second leg has the ingredients to be a classic.
“Ajax forever” read a display from the home supporters before kick-off and it has felt that long since, in 2003, they last contested a tie of this magnitude. On that occasion they were outdone in agonising fashion by AC Milan; this year’s Italian opponents came with their own health warning and it did not take special insight, in the buildup, to bill this as a meeting between Ajax’s exuberance and Juventus’s thousand-yard gaze.
Yet even the most gnarled of warriors has an achilles heel and it did Ajax’s prospects no harm that Giorgio Chiellini, injured on Monday, remained in Turin. They had ruthlessly exploited the void left by Sergio Ramos in outclassing Real Madrid and perhaps it made sense, therefore, that Juventus emerged on the front foot. Federico Bernardeschi shot a foot over Andre Onana’s goal within two minutes and, before the quarter-hour, would be denied by Matthijs de Ligt’s recovery tackle.
They had, as per Massimiliano Allegri’s pre-match pledge, come to play but it did not take long for Ajax to settle down. Hakim Ziyech’s left foot can be unsparing but by the 18th minute Juventus had survived it three times, one effort fizzing into the side netting and the others demanding action from Wojciech Szczesny. The third shot brought a flying tip over and Ajax, their dizzying interplays working space at will for a time, looked their carefree selves.
One such rat-a-tat down the right-hand side ended with Dusan Tadic squaring for Donny van de Beek, who blasted millimetres wide. It was a good chance, just 12 yards from goal, and the kind of let-off that tends to sharpen Juve’s senses.
That thought crystallised on the half-hour when Bernardeschi, sent away on the right and ready to shoot, was stopped by the cleanest of challenges by Frenkie de Jong. The ball had to be won and De Jong, who will join Barcelona in the summer, had run 40 yards to do so.
David Neres scores the Ajax equaliser. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images
Bernardeschi fired another warning shot wide and, as the interval approached, Ajax were back at arm’s length. It was the perfect time to go for the kill and Ronaldo, timing his run to thud Joao Cancelo’s delicately wedged cross past Andre Onana at breathtaking speed, produced the kind of blow he applies so routinely.
It looked like the sort of intervention, so predictable in nature, that had always threatened to cut the lifeblood from this fixture. But Ajax started the second half with the chorus of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds: “Every little thing’s gonna be alright” and, within 33 seconds, it was. Neres, seizing on Joao Cancelo’s sloppy touch by the left touchline, advanced into the area before spearing unstoppably across Szczesny and into the top corner. The stands pulsated; it was an incredible response, a poetic monument to positive thinking, and now the tie was ablaze.
Ajax’s tempo became relentless. Nicolas Tagliafico surged from left-back and, from range, shot just outside Szczesny’s near post. Ziyech had yet another go after sublime play from Tadic but, this time, put the ball out for a throw-in. De Ligt headed at the Juve keeper and, by the second half’s midway stage, the visitors gave the impression of being grateful for what they had.
They were certainly relieved when the substitute, Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, found space in the box seven minutes from time but saw Szczesny parry. Their own replacement, Douglas Costa, struck a post moments later and, on this evidence, anybody with plans in six evenings’ time might want to rethink.