Before this season, nobody would have genuinely considered Ajax a threat in the Champions League. This season, they are on the radar of all the big clubs, and it’s not just for players they can poach from the very young squad led by Erik ten Haag.
There’s a reason it’s called the Champions League. Crafting phenomenal outings in back-to-back seasons is something champions do – case study, record title winners Real Madrid. Ajax have now broken into the discussion of potential Champions League favourites. By playing an attractive brand of football with a mixture of youth, talent, and hard work, Erik ten Haag’s squad burst into the scene, winning many admirers in the process. After dispatching of Real Madrid and Juventus in that order, two of the Champions League traditional powerhouses, the Eredivisie champions narrowly lost a spot in the final due to a Lucas Moura goal at the death in the semi-final.
Now, Ajax are mentioned alongside perennial Champions League favourites Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, and finalists for two years running as well as last season’s winners, Liverpool. Some might even throw in Atletico Madrid.
This success came at a cost however, as elite clubs swooped down like vultures to pick their brightest stars. Frenkie de Jong was already a Barcelona player before Ajax’s run ended, but resumed for duty after the Eredivisie season. Captain Matthijs de Ligt took his time in choosing, eventually signing with Juventus. This double blow dampened the expectations of fans and neutrals alike, and people rued the purported “sudden demise” of a promising young team. That wasn’t all as two members of the supporting cast at the club left in the summer transfer window: Kasper Dolberg to Ligue 1 side, OGC Nice, and veteran Lasse Schone to Genoa in Serie A.
However, this is not something new at Ajax – developing players into stars and moving them on before they reach their prime is business as usual at the Johan Cruijff ArenA.
Erik ten Hag’s attack remains in place still. He can rely on Dusan Tadic, David Neres and Hakim Ziyech to continue pumping in goals, ably supported in midfield by new signings Quincy Promes and Razvan Marin, with the dynamic Donny Van de Beek. Lisandro Martinez (who can be used in the midfield as well), Alvarez, Daley Blind, Nicolas Tagliafico, Joel Veltman and Sergino Dest remain a strong backbone in the defence, in front of the defiant Andre Onana.
With a brand-new team and some players promoted from Jong Ajax, the club strode into the 2019/20 Eredivisie season like they were bulletproof. They currently top the Eredivisie on 14 points, recording four victories and two draws from their six fixtures to date and scoring 20 goals in the process.
Their Champions League also started on a high. Their group looked to be the most balanced of all the groups this season, until they showed that they are a head above the rest. In their opening match, Ajax put Ligue 1 runners-up, Lille LOSC, to the sword in a comprehensive 3-0 victory with goals scored by Promes, Edson Alvares and Nicolas Tagliafico. This victory reminded people of the challenge posed by ten Haag’s boys the season before and put out a warning to the rest of the teams in their groups and the rest of the Champions League – that even with an overhauled roster, opponents will do well not to take Ajax lightly this season.
Erik ten Haag has given fans and neutrals hope by proving to be an able tactician, adept at planning matches and making in-game adjustments. He keeps his young squad on their toes too and always pushes them to be better – and it shows in the number of players they have in the national team. Passion, hard work, courage, and motivation is the way of De Godenzonen from the opening kick to the final whistle.
It will take a whole lot from the perennial favourites and any other club to topple them from the Champions League this season, and if they don’t clinch the title, they will have stamped their authority on the league as a powerhouse.