Juventus and Ajax in safe hands with Wojciech Szczesny and Andre Onana
Two keepers face off in Tuesday's Champiuons League quarter-final return leg in Turin
Up in the VIP section of the Juventus Stadium this evening, the visiting chief executive will be granted a warm reception. He is Edwin van der Sar, the 48-year-old Dutchman who drives strategy these days at Ajax Amsterdam, a job he is doing rather well given the club are in a Champions League quarter-final for the first time in 16 years.
The last time they reached a semi-final, which is this young side’s aim in a tie poised at 1-1, Van der Sar was Ajax’s goalkeeper, en route to establishing himself among the very best in his position. He went on to become a Juve player for two years, although next to his spells at Ajax and Manchester United, that time was a less of a highlight. Van der Sar was replaced in 2001, quite brusquely, when Juve made Gigi Buffon the most expensive keeper in history.
Eighteen years later, Juve are only just reaching a considered assessment of Buffon’s successor, so dominant and enduring did the Italian become. Van der Sar has some idea of the challenges of comparison with the great Gigi, and he admires the way Wojciech Szczesny has gone about the task of taking over the gilded gloves of a Juve legend. As a chief executive, he will also admire the careful way Juve planned the succession. Szczesny, already 27 and with well over 250 matches in the Premier League and Serie A under his belt, was persuaded to deputise Buffon for a whole season on the promise of taking over last summer, when Buffon, now 41, left for Paris Saint-Germain.
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On Tuesday, Szczesny will play in his 50th European club match, and knows that Juventus are closing in on the last four with a growing feeling of security about their last line of defence. The Poland international can think back to moments like his brilliant tip over the bar from Antoine Griezmann in the tight last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid - Juventus won 3-2 on aggregate - to know he has won the respect and confidence of a Juve defence manned by warriors such as Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci who spent most of their elite careers developing an understanding with Buffon.
Szczesny would be entitled to believe that his Champions League story is advancing, after years of frustration. He joined Arsenal as a teenager, and, through his seven years there, European competition dealt him some poor hands: his first Champions League trip to Camp Nou lasted 19 minutes, thanks to injury. His first trip to San Siro was a 4-0 defeat. He was red-carded at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena. The common theme through all these mishaps was elimination at the last-16 stage.
Loaned to Roma once Arsenal had signed Petr Cech as their first-choice, Szczesny, who has 42 caps for Poland, began resurrecting his career. Two strong years in Serie A acted almost as an audition for the Buffon succession.
Van der Sar says he sees similarities between the goalkeeper he was and the Szczesny of Juve. Both are lean and agile. “He’s a bit like me in the way he conducts himself, and I like the look of him,” said the Ajax man, “and of course he plays behind a very good defence.”
At the other end this evening, a much younger keeper. Andre Onana only turned 23 earlier this month. Yet he will be playing in his 40th Uefa competition fixture. The Cameroonian, who was part of Barcelona’s academy in his mid-teens, was a Europa League finalist with Ajax two seasons ago, and is regularly the subject of enquiries from major clubs directed at Van der Sar about what his asking price might be.
Brave and bold at coming off his line, Onana is the latest in a line of keepers from Cameroon who have thrived in European club football, going back to Thomas Nkono in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s the Tommy Nkono whose performances at the 1990 World Cup in Italy Buffon would later say inspired him to become a goalkeeper; Nkono and Buffon later became good friends.
From Van der Sar’s viewpoint, it is Ajax who have the more dynamic keeper of the two in Turin. But the Dutch club’s management staff must also expect that Onana will find himself busier than Szczesny for periods.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal in Amsterdam has given Juve the marginal advantage.
Ronaldo’s appetite for his favourite tournament is also clearly whetted. Juve may have lost a legend in goal but they have gained a peerless goalscorer. From his home in Paris, Buffon, who won three silver medals in the Champions League with Juventus but never a gold, would be forgiven for wondering if he might have been wise to linger in Turin just one more year.
Updated: April 16, 2019 10:24 AM