TURIN • First Real Madrid, now Juventus.
What a story this Champions League campaign is turning into for Ajax, who produced another remarkable performance to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 1997, courtesy of a player who was not even born then.
Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax's outstanding 19-year-old captain, ended Cristiano Ronaldo's hopes of a fourth successive Champions League title and a first for Juventus with a towering header in a 2-1 comeback win on Tuesday that completed a 3-2 aggregate quarter-final success.
With Manchester City or Tottenham waiting in their semi-final, de Ligt insisted his young team are a match for anyone and can emulate the 1995 team by winning their fifth European Cup.
"Can we can go on to win the competition? Well, we are in the semi-finals now. And we have eliminated two of the favourites in the last two rounds," he said.
"We don't know what we can achieve, but we are never satisfied. There's so much potential in this team, we are all still quite young and you see us grow every game."
Ajax fell behind to Ronaldo's header in the first half before Donny van de Beek's equaliser drew the tie level on aggregate, with de Ligt's winner just reward for a superb second-half display.
Young and dangerous
FRENKIE DE JONG, 21 MIDFIELDER
Possibly the most high profile of Ajax's youngsters, de Jong has transformed from being an aggressive centre-back to more of a deep-lying midfielder after Daley Blind returned to the club from Manchester United. The Dutch midfielder has already agreed to join Barcelona in the summer on a five-year deal worth €75 million (S$114.7 million).
MATTHIJS DE LIGT, 19 DEFENDER
The Dutchman (main picture) may be just 19 years old but he is already captain. A beast in the centre of defence, he can dribble forward from the back, fire laser-guided passes with either foot and has a knack for heading in corners. He will command a fee in excess of £70 million (S$123.5 million).
DAVID NERES, 22 ATTACKER
Skilful and a good dribbler, the 22-year-old Brazilian is a tricky one for full-backs to contain. The forward is excellent at creating space for himself with a neat touch or flick before putting a dangerous cross into the box. Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal and United are now weighing up summer moves for the player.
That 4-1 second-leg win at Real last month seemed freakish as well as brilliant, but the scoreline here could have been similar.
Ajax's dynamic, incisive attacking football was simply too much for Juve to handle, especially in the second half when the visitors created chance after chance.
David Neres, Dusan Tadic and Hakim Ziyech wreaked havoc with their fluid movement and clever touches.
Frenkie de Jong and Lasse Schone controlled midfield and van de Beek was exceptional playing in between the lines.
Ajax coach Erik ten Hag said: "This team grows and grows. We know how to push boundaries every time. And, with Tottenham or Man City, there will be another challenge. We look forward to it."
Barcelona-bound midfielder de Jong believes the win in Turin should have been more emphatic.
"We dominated after the break and were well worth our victory. In fact, we probably should have won by more," said the 21-year-old, who will join the Catalans in the summer for €75 million (S$114.7 million) and is likely to be joined by fellow youth team graduate de Ligt.
Ajax have brought a breath of fresh air to Europe's top club competition, which 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 from outside England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France to reach the last four since fellow Dutch side PSV Eindhoven 14 years ago.
Once regarded as a major power in European football, Ajax have in the last 10 years become a feeder club, signing players at a young age, helping them mature and develop before selling them.
Even so, they have been able to build a young team that play exciting, fluid football.
"We are on the way back, the signs are there," said ten Hag. "We have incredible talents and it will get better and better."
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS