In 1995, Ajax found themselves in the finals of the Champion’s League playing AC Milan, who had reached the finals for a third consecutive time that year. That day, a young Patrick Kluivert, just 18 years of age, scored the winning goal. It was youth that won them the trophy and it could very well happen again.
24 is a special number in this context. It was 24 years ago that they last won the Champion’s League and the team’s average age is 24, far younger than any of the other teams in the competition at this stage and yet, they have progressed to the last four. Ajax have refused to bow down to pressure this season as they knocked out last year’s winners, Real Madrid, in the round of 16 and then went on to defeat the favorites, Juventus, in the quarter-finals.
It is not an easy feat to reach the semis, let alone defeat these clubs, one of which won the trophy four times in the last five years and the other which has retained their league title for the last seven seasons.
Ajax are on to something great and could not have done any better for such a young group of players.
To be able to play at such a high level despite their immaturity and inexperience is something that would faze most teams. Their manager, Erik Ten Haag has masterminded wins against teams that should be playing in the final. Perhaps more impressively, he managed wins in the away legs of those games, a task which would be seemingly impossible for any team.
Ajax went into those games with the ambition to win. They aimed not just to survive against supposedly tougher opposition but thrive against them as they were hungry for the victory. A good attitude is not enough to make them champions, they needed to be tactically adept as well and they have certainly shown that by breaking down Real Madrid 4-1 in the second leg of the round of 16.
Frenkie de Jong was the star of that show as he prevented Ballon d’Or winner, Luka Modric, from dictating the game and also linked up the defence with the attack. He was all over the pitch and was lauded for his role in beating the Spanish giants.
Ten Haag likes his team to play bold attacking football and pass the ball around their opponent’s half, bringing the game to their opponents and controlling the game. Playmaker Hakim Ziyech is responsible for creating their chances in front of goal and also provides firepower in front of goal to help his team to win crucial games.
The chemistry of the players that allows them to play such fluid football and the likes of De Jong and Ziyech provide those sparks of individual brilliance to drive their team forward. The good thing about Ten Haag is that he knows how to maximise his players’ abilities and gets them to play to their strengths. Albeit, the success of the team goes not only to the manager but also to the players who had the fortitude to play against some of football’s most feared teams emerge victorious.
Ajax have a myriad of young stars to choose from – Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, David Neres, and Donny van de Beek. It all goes down to their superlative academy which oozes with talent. They have produced the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Christian Eriksen and most recently, Justin Kluivert, whom they sold to Roma last summer. They are not afraid to let go of their top prospects because they are confident that their academy will just produce another outstanding talent to take his place.
Such is the brilliance of the academy that they consistently have a strong team to field and this year, they have produced a formidable squad.
22-year-old, David Neres has been exceptional up front for Ajax and scored the equaliser against Juventus in the first leg. He has registered eight goals and eight assists this season while providing threats on the wings. The way he dances around opposition defenders and leaves the fans excited to see him play every week.
He plays football with this boyish-enthusiasm that puts less pressure on him to perform in big games. He has no concern about facing teams like Real Madrid and Juventus as he does not doubt his own ability. Every game is just another game for him, regardless of whoever he plays.
Staying on the topic of pressure, the responsibility of the captaincy has befallen the 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt, who is the rock at the back for Ajax and formed a solid defensive pairing with Daley Blind. To lead the club at such a young age requires great maturity which De Ligt demonstrates.
He is at the forefront of Ajax’s youthful yet world-class team and perfectly exemplifies how every young layer should behave. While young stars are chasing big contracts and moves away from the club, De Ligt remains focused on his beloved boyhood club and just wants to play good football and win trophies with them. He’s managed to rally the team together to put up a strong push for the Champion’s League trophy and also the league title as they currently sit level on points with PSV Eindhoven at the top of the table as they have the superior goal difference.
It is the combination of belief and skill that has allowed Ajax to make waves in Europe and overthrow some of its strongest teams. Some would peg them as potential winners of the Champion’s League if they carry on their good form. Nevertheless, even if they do not win the trophy this year, they would still have managed to accomplish an amazing feat by beating Real Madrid and Juventus in the competition with such a young team. But by the looks of it, they have a real chance of winning the coveted trophy as they have proved themselves to be one of the best in Europe.Leave a comment