TURIN: Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt (third L)) heads to score during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg against Juventus at the Allianz Stadium.—AFP
TURIN: Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt (third L)) heads to score during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg against Juventus at the Allianz Stadium.—AFP

PARIS: Ajax Amsterdam followed up their elimination of Real Madrid by producing a spell-binding display of inventive, passing football to win 2-1 away to Juventus on Tuesday and end the Serie A team’s dreams of winning the Champions League.

Ajax’s 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt headed the winner from the corner in the 67th minute of the quarter-final second leg as the youth-filled Dutch side came from behind to clinch a 3-2 aggregate win and reach the last four for the first time since 1996/97.

It is the first time since 2010 that Ronaldo has failed to reach the last four, having won the competition the last three years in a row with Real.

Juve signed Ronaldo in the offseason in the hope of ending a 23-year wait for the Champions League but one goal from the Portugal star wasn’t enough against Ajax, who erased the first-half deficit through Donny van de Beek and largely dominated the final 45 minutes.

Ronaldo’s old rival Lionel Messi is very much in contention, though, after producing another masterful performance to knock out Manchester United and fire Barcelona into the semi-finals for the first time in four years.

Messi pounced on two United mistakes to score twice and help Barca win 3-0, 4-0 on aggregate in Tues­­day’s other quarter-final.

Barca toyed with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side for the majority of their encounter at home with Philippe Coutinho scoring their third and by the end, an outclassed United might have been relieved the score was not more traumatic.

Having seen off three-time defending champions Real en route to the quarters, overturning a 2-1 home defeat against the Spanish side with a memorable 4-1 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu, Ajax showed no fear against Ronaldo and Juve either as they earned a semi-final against Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur.

“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. The next games will be very difficult, but so were these ones. So who knows?,” said De Ligt.

Frenkie de Jong added: “We dominated after the break and were well worth our victory. In fact, we probably should have won by more.”

Ronaldo put Juve ahead in the 28th minute in Turin with a typically emphatic header from a Miralem Pjanic corner, his sixth goal of the competition, but even that didn’t faze Ajax’s young players.

Ajax levelled six minutes later when Hakim Ziyech’s mishit shot turned into an assist for Van de Beek, who beat the offside trap to redirect it past Juve goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Ajax grew in confidence in the second half and had a number of chances to take the lead, with Szczesny making a couple of stellar saves to keep the game level. But Juve continued to look vulnerable without captain and key defender Giorgio Chiellini, and Ajax finally found their breakthrough as De Ligt outjumped both Daniel Rugani and Alex Sandro to head in a corner.

BARCELONA: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi shoots to score during the match against Manchester United at the Camp Nou Stadium.—AFP
BARCELONA: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi shoots to score during the match against Manchester United at the Camp Nou Stadium.—AFP

“Ajax deserved to qualify,” said Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri. “We could have done better, but Ajax aren’t coming out of nowhere, they were Europa League finalists two years ago and scored five goals against Real.

“It’s not our worst elimination. We had big expectations, but the Champions League is a strange competition. You have to arrive in peak condition. In the last month we have been struggling with several injuries. Even tonight we were missing important players.”

Messi had failed to score in his last 12 quarter-final appearances, but he settled his side’s nerves after a bright start from United, collecting a misplaced pass from Ashley Young and curling into the bottom corner in the 16th minute.

The Argentine then pounced on another lapse from United’s defence four minutes later to win back possession high up the pitch and fire a shot from outside the box, which squirmed under visiting keeper David de Gea.

Coutinho finished off a therapeutic win for the Catalans, after three quarter-final failures in a row, by curling into the top corner in the 61st. Barca will meet either Porto or Liverpool in the last four.

“This was a spectacular performance, this is what we are all about,” Messi told reporters. “The first five minutes we were a little shy and nervous, perhaps the scoreline gave us a strange feeling, but then we took control of the game.”

United had arrived at Camp Nou hoping to take inspiration from its Champions League final victory twenty years ago, when current manager Solskjaer capped a comeback against Bayern Munich by scoring the winner in injury time.

But Messi showed that past glories mean very little when he is playing at his best.

After not managing a single shot on target at Old Trafford in the first leg, United looked a lot more dangerous going forward at the start. But after Marcus Rashford hit the crossbar, Messi took over with his tournament-leading ninth and 10th goals of the season.

“Messi and Cristiano [Ronaldo] have been the best players in the world for the past decade,” Solskjaer said. “And he showed why we think that and why he has won so many titles. If you give him space and timing around the goal he will create chances and score.”

Messi now has his 109th and 110th Champions League goals and, potentially, three extra matches to reduce the gap on Ronaldo’s 126.

The Barcelona crowd, which for so long viewed Ronaldo as its main nemesis when he was with Real, celebrated the Ajax goals when they were announced on the video monitor.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2019