Can Ajax relive their fairytale European season?
Background photo: Calflier001, CC BY-SA 2.0
Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City. Now Liverpool. Those are your perennial Champions League favourites. Some might throw in Atletico Madrid but no one expected an underdog like Ajax to delve so deep into the tournament last season, least of all Real Madrid and Juventus. After dispatching those two traditional powerhouses, the Eredivisie champions were a Lucas Moura goal at the death from the final. Playing an attractive brand of football with a mixture of youth, talent, and hard work, Erik Ten Hag's squad won many admirers.
They also attracted a lot of attention from their vanquished foes and other elite clubs. Frenkie de Jong was sold to Barcelona before Ajax's run ended. Matthijs de Ligt took his time in signing with Juventus. That double blow lowered the lofty expectations such clubs usually inherit after an unexpectedly outstanding campaign. We're talking about neutrals now, not the Godzonen themselves.
Developing players into stars and selling them on before they reach their prime is business as usual at the Johan Cruijff ArenA. Nor does it end with the two generational talents. Kaspar Dolberg also left for Ligue 1 side, OGC Nice this summer and veteran Lasse Schone switched to Genoa. Critics lamented the coming fall from grace.
Then the club put paid to last season's Ligue 1 runners-up, Lille LOSC. The 3-0 victory was textbook comprehensive. Quincy Promes in the 19th minute. Edson Alvares and Nicolas Tagliafico secured the result with goals before the second half was that old.
There's a reason it's called the Champions League. Crafting phenomenal outings in back-to-back seasons is something champions rather than pretenders do. Even with an overhauled roster, opponents won't take Ajax lightly this season. It's a tremendous challenge to reach the competition's final eight, year in, year out.
Despite their many losses, they might be up to the task. Ten Hag's attack remains in place. He can rely on Dusan Tadic, David Neres and Hachim Ziyech to continue pumping in goals, ably supported in midfield by new signings Lisandro Martinez, Promes [loan made permanent], Alvares and the dynamic Donny van de Beek. Daley Blind, Nicolas Tagliafico, Joel Veltman and Sergino Dest form a strong defensive line in front of the defiant Andre Onana.
In addition, Ten Hag is proving an able tactician, adept at planning matches and making in-game adjustments. He keeps his young squad on their toes too. Passion, hard work, courage, and motivation remain evident from the opening kick to the final whistle.
Ajax started the new term on a brilliant note. They top the Eredivisie on 19 points, recording four victories and a draw from their five fixtures to date. Couple that with their summary dismissal of LOSC and they are well on their way to repeating last season's unexpected success. This time around, it won't be as much of a surprise but, for top teams who think they've learned their lesson in not taking Ajax for granted, the frustration at still finding themselves on the wrong end of the score will sting all the more.