When Ajax host Juventus tonight it will be viewed as a case of how the mighty have fallen coming almost 14 years after the pair met in the Champions League final. Once regarded as European greats, they now meet as also-rans in Europe's second-tier club competition. Their proud past, which includes six major trophies apiece in Europe's stellar competition, matters little as they struggle in the present.
However, their encounter in the last 32 of the Europa League does provide glamour and prestige to the competition. Having replaced Ciro Ferrara with Alberto Zaccheroni as their coach, Juventus, particularly, look strong candidates for a first European success since 1996 when they were able to wrest the biggest prize in European football from Ajax in a penalty shoot-out in Rome. A youthful Alessandro del Piero was part of that side. He also played the following year when his backheel was a consolation in the Old Lady's 3-1 final defeat to Borussia Dortmund, and the next season when Predrag Mijatovic's goal for Real Madrid ensured their seventh European Cup success.
That loss took place at the Amsterdam ArenA. Del Piero will return there tonight hoping to leave with happier memories. At 35, the frontman enters the latter part of his career, but he remains an inspirational figure for Juve and still harbours dreams of playing for Italy in this summer's World Cup. "The will and hope is there, and it will grow over the next three months," he said. Should he manage to guide Juve to Europa League glory and a return to the Champions League with a top-four finish in Serie A, his chances can only increase.
Despite not having received a call-up for his country since September 2008, history would suggest he is right to retain hope. Zinedine Zidane, his former Juve teammate, was brought out of retirement at 34 to provide experience and excellence for France in the last World Cup in Germany. Del Piero has similar allure and ability. When he played and scored in Juve's 3-2 win over Genoa on Saturday, he surpassed Giampiero Boniperti's record of 444 league appearances. He had already claimed the goalscoring record from Boniperti, the man who signed him for Juve in 1993.
Del Piero's message was that these landmarks only pushed him to achieve more. It is that desire that gains him the respect and admiration of his contemporaries. Diego, his Stadio Delle Alpi teammate, said: "As a player he's excellent; a genius in football. As a person, he is simple and humble. He deserves credit for all he has achieved." Martin Jol does not have players of that stature to call on for Ajax. But, like in the past, the Dutch side do have exciting attacking talent in their ranks, such as the Serbian Miralem Sulejmani, Ismail Assaiti and their captain, Luis Suarez, the Uruguay forward.
They may cause some problems for the Juventus defence tonight, although Nicola Legrottaglie, the bianconeri centre-back, said: "Ajax's forward line may be strong, but ours is also." With Del Piero still around, he has every reason to be confident. @Email:email@example.com