Being an Ajax fan must feel like being on a constant rollercoaster of emotion. On one hand, the Dutch side play a beautiful brand of free-flowing football, straight from the philosophy of the great Johan Cruyff, and develop players that go on to bask in the greatness of football’s biggest trophies. On the other, they deal with constantly losing their best players, right when they look on the cusp of building a dynasty. Feeder club or not, you get the sense that Ajax will always have a conveyor belt of fantastic talent, but the double-edged sword of relinquishing your best talent must be frustrating.
Let’s set the scene — Stockholm, 2017. A young but admirable Ajax side bow out in the final of the Europa League to Manchester United. Defeated 2-0 and physically bullied by a more experienced team. After dusting themselves down, many would believe this was just the start of something great and two years later, despite losing captain Davy Klaassen and centre-back Davinson Sánchez to the Premier League, Ajax had made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League — much to the surprise of the Champions League betting odds.
Indeed, it was Tottenham Hotspur, the side who prised Sánchez away from Amsterdam that they had to overcome, and with their Eredivisie title already wrapped up, the league literally was put on hold for a full-fledged assault on Europe’s top prize. However, it proved to be heartbreak en route to Madrid, as Ajax threw away a 2-0 lead, Lucas Moura scoring a hat-trick to break Dutch hearts in the game’s dying embers.
Flash forward almost three years and Ajax still have a real chance of another European upset. Their initial 2019 run saw them dispatch the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus, and still under the guidance of the brilliant Erik ten Hag now, Ajax remain unbeaten in this season’s Champions League, albeit having drawn with Portuguese side Benfica in the first leg at the Estádio da Luz.
The most impressive thing about Ajax’s transfer policy is how well they combine homegrown talent with specially chosen signings. The likes of David Neres, Donny van de Beek, Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt have all moved on but new academy players such as Perr Schuurs and Jurrien Timber have come in to take their place. As well as Dušan Tadić and Sébastien Haller, who perhaps struggled in England but look rejuvenated playing in a system that is built around their strengths.
This current crop of players look more proficient than the aesthetically pleasing class of 2019. And you get the sense that in the big games, they’ll have more experience than previous sides in terms of getting over the line.
That lack of big game experience has certainly cost Ajax before, but as they head into the game with Benfica, and while the league is much closer this year — PSV being just two points away and in close contention — the Champions League should still be the club’s top priority. Haller is in fine fettle in front of goal and if they can restore the defensive solidity they had in the group stage, conceding just five goals in a tough group with the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Benfica’s neighbours Sporting Lisbon, then we could well see Ajax’s name in the hat for the quarter-finals.
It’s been almost 30 years since Ajax tasted victory in Europe’s elite competition, and while Ten Hag will have his work cut out for him, we believe this side is definitely much stronger than the one who nearly achieved the impossible dream in 2019.