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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

'Football has to surprise people': Ajax revel in role as Champions League underdogs

Dutch club, who face Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus in the quarter-finals, have found it hard to compete with Europe's elite in recent times despite having won the European Cup four times

Ajax players Hakim Ziyech and David Neres share a laugh during training. Reuters
Ajax players Hakim Ziyech and David Neres share a laugh during training. Reuters

The return of Ajax to the latter stages of the Champions League is a welcome breath of fresh air for the competition, according to manager Erik ten Hag.

The four-time winners of the trophy will take on perennial Serie A champions Juventus in the first leg of the quarter-finals in Amsterdam on Wednesday, their first appearance in the last eight since 2003.

They made a welcome return to the forefront of the European game when they reached the Europa League final two years ago, losing to Manchester United.

However, it has become harder for Dutch clubs to compete with the very biggest sides on the continent in recent seasons.

Despite that, Ajax have turned the clock back on a run that started in the second qualifying round last July. They went on to stun Real Madrid in the last round, dumping out the holders 5-3 on aggregate.

"For Ajax it is very important to play the quarter-finals but also financially the circumstances have really changed in recent years and for a country like the Netherlands it's really difficult to get to this stage," Ten Hag said at a press conference on Tuesday.

"Only Portugal have been able to do it as well" among Europe's smaller nations, added the Dutchman, with Porto facing Liverpool in the last eight.

Last season, all eight quarter-finalists came from the big four European leagues, and there has not been a Dutch representative at this stage since 2007, when PSV Eindhoven were beaten by Liverpool.

"It's not only good for Ajax but also for the Champions League as it's not good that each year the same seven or eight clubs get to the quarter-finals and win the Champions League.

"That is not what supporters want. Football has to surprise people and it's very nice that we can be the surprise this year."

Cristiano Ronaldo is back from injury after being named in Juventus' squad for Wednesday's first leg in Amsterdam.

Ronaldo hasn't played for the Serie A leaders - who are just one point away from sealing an eighth Italian league title - since scoring the sensational hat-trick that saw Juve come back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to knock out Atletico Madrid last month.

But the Portugal captain was named in Massimiliano Allegri's 21-man Champions League squad.

Giorgio Chiellini misses out due to a left calf contracture while Emre Can also stays in Italy after straining his right ankle in the 2-1 Serie A victory over AC Milan on Saturday.

The return leg against Ajax is in Turin next Tuesday, April 16, with the winners going through to a semi-final against the winners of the all-English tie between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

Updated: April 9, 2019 07:14 PM

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