You’d have been forgiven for assuming Ajax regularly grace the latter stages of the Champions League after witnessing the tranquillity with which Donny van de Beek mesmerised Hugo Lloris before scoring against Spurs.
But Van de Beek’s momentary transformation into a snake charmer lulled viewers into a false sense of nostalgia. In reality, Ajax hadn’t even escaped the Champions League group stages for more than a decade.
Going back further, Ajax hadn’t competed in a Champions League semi-final since April 1997. Van de Beek was a few days old while Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt hadn’t even been born when Juventus rolled into town.
Ajax were still smarting from the 1996 final, in which Juventus denied Louis van Gaal’s side back-to-back trophies on penalties.
Juventus had added Zinedine Zidane to their ranks since that night in Rome, while Ajax had lost Edgar Davids and Michael Reiziger to AC Milan, as well as Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu to Real Betis and Inter Milan.
But, far from going into the game as underdogs, Arnold Scholten- the experienced presence in Ajax’s midfield- remembers a sense of vengeance amongst the squad.
“We were confident and wanted to take revenge after the lost final,” Scholten recalls.
“Juventus were difficult to beat but it wasn’t impossible, especially with our performance in the previous final.
“We wanted to rise one more time as a team, because we knew our team would fall apart after that year.”
Clarence Seedorf, Davids, Reiziger, George and Kanu had all departed after winning the Champions League, leaving the rest of the vultures to circle around Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert.
Ajax got off the the worst possible start when Nicola Amoruso, standing in for the injured Alessandro Del Piero, put Juventus ahead after just 14 minutes.
Christian Vieri doubled Juventus’ lead four minutes before half-time, leaving Ajax staring down the barrel.
But Scholten and Ajax didn’t panic. “We always had players who reached their top level in big games. Players like Jari Litmanen, Ronald and Frank de Boer, Edwin van der Sar, Overmars and Kluivert.”
It fell to Litmanen to carry the fight to Juventus’ rugged centre-back duo of Paolo Montero and Ciro Ferrara. The enigmatic Finnish midfielder halved the deficit to give Ajax something to travel to Turin with.
What should have been a tough battle ended up being a completely one-sided affair.
“We had a good start and got a big chance to score a goal, but after half an hour Juve started to take over the game,” Scholten remembers ruefully.
“Normally we could dominate a game by playing good football, but in this game we failed to play our own game. When Juve scored, the team fell apart a bit and we made too many personal mistakes.
“In the back of our minds we knew that we had to score a few times while we weren’t playing well. We missed the form and a clear mind at that moment.
Attilio Lombardo and Christian Vieri put Juventus 4-1 up on aggregate before Mario Melchiot gave Ajax feint hope with 15 minutes left to play. But, as Ajax pushed forward, Amouruso and Zidane put the match, and the tie, to bed.
One aspect of that game that still stands out for Scholten is Juventus’s midfield duo of Zidane and Didier Deschamps.
“Deschamps was a very strong tactical player who knew what a game needed. He never took any risks and kept their team together in those two games. We couldn’t accelerate because of him.
“Zidane was just unbelievably good. He played in a free role and gave Juventus so much trust. He played with a sense of calm and created so many chances.
“Juventus as a team were impressive, but Zidane was the most striking player in that second game.”
Juventus progressed to the 1997 Champions League final, where they were beaten by Borussia Dortmund, while the demolition of Ajax saw Overmars join Arsenal, Kluivert and Bogarde move to Milan and Scholten start a new life in Japan with JEF United Chiba.
Scholten now works as a youth coach at Feyenoord, but that doesn’t stop him from putting his admiration for Ajax’s latest golden generation on record.
“They have a really talented, technical group of players who can defend and attack as a team,” Scholten gushes.
“They play very dominant football and have a lot of players capable of scoring goals. It is no coincidence that they’ve come so far in the competition and I think they have every chance of reaching the final and winning.”
As with the Ajax’s sides of the ’90s, Erik ten Hag’s squad is likely to be picked apart by Europe’s elite regardless of the result.
Even if there is a mass exodus, departing the Amsterdam Arena with a Champions League medal around their necks will ensure the Class of ’19 forever remain a part of Ajax folklore.
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