Every story needs an adequate setting, whether it’s a novel, a biography or this football article, and what a better place to be on the 8th of May, 2019 than in the Netherlands.
It was a cold night, like any other Dutch night in May, but the streets were warm with excitement as practically anybody who lives in the student city of Groningen was making its way to the largest bar in Europe, De Drie Gezusters, to watch a young Ajax team take on Tottenham Hotspur in the 2nd leg of the Champions League Semi-Final.
This match wasn’t just for Ajax supporters but it was for all the Netherlands and every Dutch football fan. It was for every fan who, over the years, had been forced to watch their promising youth snatched up by bigger clubs and obscuring Dutch football from its once formidable position at the top of Europe.
Ajax, or any other Dutch club, had not reached the final of the Champions League since the 1995-96 season, and everyone was patiently waiting for the moment in which Ajax would advance to their 7th European Cup final.
Victories in the round of 16 over title-defenders Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus in the quarters had everyone dreaming of the final. The cards were all laid out on the table for Ajax to do it.
A 1-0 away victory in London had given the side from Amsterdam a comfortable advantage, albeit the game in London being an extremely tight affair that could have gone either way, however, spirits were high and confidence even more amongst the many, many supporters that night.
I arrived at the bar 45 minutes before kick-off to see practically every seat taken and turned to the projector screen. The bright red and orange colors that everyone sported was a spectacle itself.
You could feel the excitement and tension as kick-off finally took place. 5 minutes later, the Netherlands erupted as 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt headed in a corner. There was shouting, whistling, jumping and beer-throwing (fortunately, just the liquid) as de Godenzonen had one foot in the final.
A wonderful team move finished by Hakim Ziyech prompted another round of getting soaked by beer and tension to finally be released. Half-time. The fans who had already had a little too much to drink were dozing off, people began talking about anything other than the match and more people poured in to watch the second-youngest team (23.4 average squad age) in the Champions League book their flights to Madrid.
Then Lucas Moura happened. A hat-trick that involved an amazing display of tenacity and effort proved too much for the young side as Lucas scored his final of 3 goals in the 90+6 minute of stoppage time to see off the pride of Amsterdam.
It was awfully quiet in Groningen and I assume throughout the Netherlands. Many were hoping it was an illusion only to realize that their dream was gone.
The bar and streets quickly lost their jubilation just as quickly as that notorious second half came and went. Just as quickly, the Ajax squad began taking stock of its damage from such a successful European campaign.
Frenkie de Jong finally left to Barcelona for a fee of €75 million. Influential captain de Ligt was later revealed by Juventus for £67.5 million and just as fast as Ajax were eliminated and their key players bought by bugger clubs, everyone forgot about Ajax, which is exactly what makes them so dangerous.
Everyone was shocked to see such a young team absolutely dominate Europe’s elite clubs and they are poised to do so again this year. As much as the departure of the captain and the man who seemingly could do anything in midfield would hurt any team, Ajax managed to only lose 3 starters (Lasse Schöne joined Genoa) and maintain the man behind their tiki-taka style of play, Erik Ten Hag, with interest from other European clubs being scuffed at by the 49 year old.
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The fact that they somehow managed to retain the services of Hakim Ziyech, with the 26-year old Moroccan international having 35 goal involvements in 40 games across all competitions last season, showcases how much Ajax has grown by their ability to keep world-class talent.
30-year old Dušan Tadić has seen a career revival since joining Ajax, scoring 34 (!) goals and assisting another 17 (!) last season, even being named captain this year, where he’s poised for another scorching start, having already scored 4 goals and assisting a further 4 in just 4 Eredivisie games.
The addition of Quincy Promes, a Dutch international averaging 1.5 key passes per game from the wing, has added much needed pace. Lisandro Martinez from Defensa y Justicia has been extremely adequate at replacing de Ligt, playing both at center-back and defensive midfielder.
The 21-year old Argentinian is averaging 3.4 tackles and interceptions per game, 69 passes per game (third most in the team) with a 92% pass accuracy. The squad, with an average age of 23.9, are looking as dangerous as ever, yet to lose a game in all competitions and sitting 2nd in the Eredivisie with a game in hand and only a point behind 1st placed Vitesse whilst scoring a league high 15 goals in 4 games.
Replacing Frenkie de Jong has been a little harder, as his seemingly unending energy at the base of a midfield 3 has been replaced by 2 defensive midfielders, usually the aforementioned Martinez with another new signing Edson Alvarez, but it is most likely that Ten Hag will figure it out as the team grows.
Ajax are expected to retain the national title and cup but they will be watched on the international stage ever so closely after last year’s Cinderella run to the semis. A group with Chelsea, Valencia and Lille will prove to be exciting for neutrals but Ajax aren’t even favorites to take 1st place, with that belonging to Lampard’s Chelsea.
Good – that underestimation is what led Ajax so close to the final last season, well, an extremely attacking, fast-countering, total-football style of play definitely played a role, but so did the fact that their opponents criminally underrated them. Don’t forget Ajax. They will make you remember them.