Ajax – a breath of fresh air

Every now and then a team comes along that defies all the odds and shakes up the footballing establishment.

This season Ajax have been the tonic European football has been screaming out for after the dominance of Real Madrid for the past three seasons.

Few would scarcely believe a team that began their Champions League campaign last July in the qualifying rounds would be seconds away from reaching the final but Ajax were.

The secret to this Ajax team that cast a spell over Europe is youth, ironically it is also what cost them so dearly last night in the dying seconds of the game.

The average age of the Ajax team last night was 25 years old astonishingly young for a Champions League semi-final. Manager Erik ten Hag has followed the Ajax model of placing trust in young players but he has also masterminded a return to the total football played by the Dutch national team of the 1970s.

Erik ten Hag has given Ajax the freedom to play free flowing football.

The signs were there early in the competition that Ajax would be a dark horse drawing both home and away with Bayern Munich while putting in impressive performances against AEK Athens and Benfica. The last 16 draw pitted them against defending champions Real Madrid. Surely they would be blown away by the Spanish giants.

Ajax dominated the first leg in Amsterdam but against the run of play Madrid left the Dutch capital with a 2-1 aggregate lead. The Santiago Bernabeu would be the scene for one of the biggest upsets in modern Champions League history. Ajax took to the field in the Spanish capital and played with total confidence, midfielder Frenkie de Jong left Ballon d’Or winner Luca Modric in a heap as they ran rings around the Galácticos.

Goals from Hakim Ziyech, David Neres, Dusan Tadic and Lasse Schone each a work of beauty wrote the death sentence for Madrid’s stranglehold on the competition. The king was well and truly dead assassinated by a young squire.

The quarter-final draw pitted Ajax against a Juventus lead by Cristiano Ronaldo, surely now their European odyssey would end.

It would not.

Lasse Schone curls a stunning free kick into the Real Madrid net.

Amsterdam welcomed the Italian superpower for the first leg with Ronaldo handing the visitors the lead. That would be that a crucial away goal but no Ajax displayed the determination that had gotten them to this stage and pulled level through a sublime David Neres goal.

Heading to Turin Ajax faced an uphill task, the Allianz Stadium has been a European fortress for Juventus with teams as strong as Barcelona struggling to score there. If it wasn’t apparent already this Ajax side don’t care much for history.

Ronaldo put Juventus ahead again but Ajax replied six minutes later through Donny van de Beek. At 2-2 Ajax would progress on the away goal rule but that wasn’t enough for the young bucks they wanted to win. 19 year old captain Matthijs de Ligt rose highest at a corner and headed home the winner.

Ajax were in the semi-finals and their European adventure had now set the world ablaze. Tottenham were outclassed in the first leg with van de Beek giving Ajax an away goal to bring to Amsterdam.

Last night they played as they have done all season, comfortable in possession always looking to attack and setting pulses racing. The first half belonged to them with de Ligt once again heading home from a corner while a fast moving counter attack culminated in Ziyech hammering the ball home.

Donny van de Beek scores in Turin.

The second half saw their dream turn into a nightmare. Spurs deserved a goal and got it through Lucas Moura. Ajax were shaken but had started to settle a little and were still a threat on the counter. The second Moura goal was the turning point in the game. Goalkeeper André Onana produced a fine save that spilled into the six yard box as he dived to recover the ball Lasse Schone attempted to clear it. The confusion saw the ball fall to Moura who slotted it home.

Ajax were now feeling the pressure, a seed of doubt had been sown in their minds for the first time. They wasted valuable chances late on with Ziyech hammering the base of the post. A cruel slip in the 95th minute gave Dele Alli extra space allowing him to slip the ball to Moura who killed the game and broke Dutch hearts.

As the young Ajax players fell to the ground in despair you couldn’t help but feel this was it for them.

We have seen teams like this Ajax squad in the past be picked apart by bigger clubs once their adventure ends. Monaco reached the semi-finals in 2017 and lost Kylian Mbappe to PSG, Bernardo Silva to Manchester City and Tiémoué Bakayoko to Chelsea. Leicester City lost N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez in the two seasons following their Premier League triumph.

Midfield maestro Frenkie de Jong has already signed a contract with FC Barcelona, his partner in crime Donny van de Beek has attracted interest from a number of large clubs as has captain Matthijs de Ligt. The attacking prowess of David Neres and Hakim Ziyech is bound to see bids from larger clubs from across the continent too.

Ajax players after the final whistle last night.

Some players have already committed themselves to staying at Ajax it is hard to see them replicating this if they lose the crucial players mentioned above.

Ajax played football the way it should be played without fear. Erik ten Hag let his players go out and express themselves, it didn’t seem to matter that they were playing Real Madrid or Juventus such was their confidence on the ball. Positive free flowing attacking football that had you at the edge of your seat. The arrogance with which they played was glorious.

While this Ajax side is likely to break up this great club will be back again. It might take a few seasons but this generation are a shining example for what is possible when you play without fear and throw the rule book out the window.

Ajax will look to their academy that has produced so many of the talents of this team and past teams for the seasons going forward. Fittingly their academy is called De Toekomst (the future).

De Toekomst looks bright for Ajax.

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