Ajax’s last win against Juventus was in 1974, and understandably, all of Amsterdam was hoping that it would happen again during this round of sixteen match of the UEFA Europa League. Ajax was on the right track, but Amauri’s performance was too strong for Martin Jol’s young team, who didn’t manage to keep the lead that Sulejmani had provided, 1-2.
It was an atmosphere worthy of a Champions League match, with two teams who, historically, have been the most successful in their countries, and the 51.676 spectators’ expectations were high in the sold out ArenA.
The 2010 Juventus team was playing on a European stage for the first time under coach Alberto Zaccheroni. His wish is to bring back the ‘old Juventus’. In terms of age, he’s there, but in terms of performance, not quite yet. His squad included only one player under the age of 24, Paolo De Ceglie. In contrast, Ajax had only three players older than 23: Maarten Stekelenburg, Demy de Zeeuw en Oleguer. Their experience was definitely needed, and the youth would perhaps provide the element of surprise.
Ajax started the game with passion and determination. After fifteen minutes, they made good on their first big opportunity. Miralem Sulejmani, replacing the ill Marko Pantelic, topped off a long rush with a decisive low shot into Buffon’s – ‘the best keeper in the world’, according to Jol - far corner, 1-0. It was a well deserved lead, as Ajax was much stronger than Juventus. “For us, it was a matter of surviving”, said Juventus coach Zaccheroni afterwards. “And we suffered a bit.”
Ajax’s lead lasted only fifteen minutes, when Amauri’s header went straight in, 1-1. After that, the game swung back and forth, and Suarez almost got a penalty shot when his jersey was grabbed – albeit lightly. Sulejmani had received one earlier. Eventually, a yellow card would cost the captain the return match.
After the break, when ex Ajax player Zdenek Grygera substituted Zebina, Ajax played their heart out for the enthusiastic supporters. In the 58th minute, Juventus took the lead. Just like their earlier goal, the pass came from captain Del Piero on from left, and Amauri fought Vertonghen for the header and won, 1-2. After an hour of play, Suarez got a yellow card, which will force Jol to come up with a different front line for the away match in Turin. Suarez showed what he was worth for the rest of the match, giving everything he had. In the 66th minute, he made a sharp pass to Siem de Jong, who – after shooting wide just a few minutes earlier – couldn’t make good.
With just over fifteen minutes left to play, Jol brought in more youthful energy. As Zaccheroni increased the average age of his squad by bringing in Salihamidzic (33), the Ajax coach brought in Christian Eriksen. The Dane with the velvet foot, who just turned eighteen, was given the chance to try and crack Juventus’ tight defence. It almost worked in the 79th minute, when De Jong – once again – hit the crossbar.
During the last ten minutes, Jol brought in experience with Dennis Rommendahl. But Jol still tried to squeeze out the tying goal by using the speed of a young colt. Ajax’s last trump card pleased the crowd enormously: Hyun Jun Suk. He went directly for the goal, but was immediately up against the Italian defence. The Korean went down, and with him, so did Ajax. After 35 years, they didn’t manage to get the better of the team from Turin, even though Ajax deserved to win. “It’s a shame to lose a home game like this”, said Jol. “We were good in the first half hour. We took possession well and put on the pressure. But we anticipated wrongly – twice – with Del Piero and Amauri. They were in front of Maarten five, six times. You can see that they were all business. I hope they play just like this at home, and then we have a chance. But I think they’ll be even more unflappable, and we’ll have to take a different approach. We did what we needed to do in this match, and we still didn’t win. That’s too bad.”