Ajax prepares to face Juventus in the Champions League quarterfinals, aiming to write a new chapter in the club's illustrious history and make the last four for the first time since 1996-97, when it lost in the semifinals, coincidentally, to the Bianconeri.
Ajax entered the tournament through the qualifying round and has played more matches than any other remaining team (the rest started in the group stage), so the journey has been a long one. If Ajax overcomes against Juventus, it will be another tremendous achievement for a team that has already done so much this season, including an undefeated run in the group stage and an eye-opening win in the last 16 against Real Madrid.
For Dusan Tadic, Ajax’s offensive workhorse, the tournament has been a memorable one, especially last month’s battle against the Spanish giants.
“Beating Real Madrid [at the Bernabeu] was the best game of my life. But it wasn’t just me who though that, many of my teammates felt the same. It was a great moment,” the 30-year-old striker told SI.com.
In the game, Tadic was everywhere, creating two assists and scoring one himself. As Jonathan Wilson wrote, he was a “master of geometry, a puppet-master unpicking Madrid seemingly at will.”
But that was then and this is now, and Tadic wants to keep a cool head when talking about his next opponent.
“Juventus is going to be very difficult. They’re very strong and always defending together, very resilient," Tadic said. "But we will be ready and we will play, as always, the same game. We’ll approach it exactly the same as past matches.”
The win against Real Madrid was impressive, but given the Spanish club’s struggling season, a confident, more assertive Juventus brings a different test to Ajax. Thanks to veterans Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, the Italian side is defensively more disciplined, while players like Federico Bernardeschi, Mario Mandzukic and the in-form Moise Kean will provide a big test to Ajax’s backline.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s availability, as he battles a muscle injury, is presently in question, but this isn’t a concern for Tadic. As far as he’s concerned, Ronaldo is starting, and if he doesn’t play, then it doesn’t change the outlook. While it’s important to have a plan to combat an opponent’s best player, Tadic’s Ajax always focuses on the entire team and how to nullify the strengths of all 11 players on the pitch. That’s why the club has been recently so successful–when it comes to breaking you down, Ajax is an equal opportunist.
“[Ajax] is a perfect team for me," Tadic said. "We play lots of offensive football, and we always want to dominate the opponent. No matter the opponent, we face them the same way. I think our philosophy remains the same no matter who we play.”
When speaking about young teammates such as Noussair Mazraoui, David Neres or Frenkie de Jong, Tadic considers himself a mentor, and it’s a role he enjoys.
“The mix of young and older in the squad is very helpful and I think it’s normal for me to take this role [of mentor] on," Tadic said. "I’m more experienced, so I think it’s normal they look up to me. It’s nice, and I like it. I enjoy helping the younger guys.”
But when it comes to his 19-year-old captain, however, it’s a little different.
“Matthijs [de Ligt] is young but you wouldn’t even think it," Tadic said. "He’s very mature. It feels like he’s almost 30.”
It’s been an eventful 12 months for Tadic, as the Serbian has enjoyed quite the turn in fortune.
After only 23 goals in four years at Southampton, Tadic left the Premier League side last summer after showing inconsistent form. The reality, however, is that Tadic’s time at the club was also a reflection of ongoing struggles in recent years at St. Mary’s. Tadic had four different managers (Ronald Koeman, Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes), all with different ideas and strategies on how to manage the forward.
Some ideas worked, and some didn’t, but there was also a tremendous amount of responsibility set on his shoulders as he watched teammates such as Nathaniel Clyne, Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane all leave for Liverpool. That all forced Tadic to be a centerpiece with little help around him. Despite the lack of goals and overall sense of unsettlement, Tadic still created many opportunities, as during his time in England he was directly involved in 47 of the club’s EPL goals–the most of any Southampton player during that period.
And that is what Ajax saw in the striker.
For the Dutch side, Tadic is a tireless worker, one who has the second-most goals in the Eredivisie (20) and who doesn’t stop running or creating chances for his teammates. His time at Southampton may have not yielded the goals he wanted, but it helped him learn how to be a better leader and selfless striker–a trait not often seen in center forwards.
“The Premier League is one of the best leagues, and Saints are a nice club," Tadic said. "I will always remember my time there, as I have many great memories.”
For now, all eyes are on Juventus and the Champions League quarterfinal, and if Tadic has his way, he will score even more. But more importantly, he’ll help to create some more memories on Europe's brightest stage, a far cry from the lows he endured in England.