Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt make Ajax fans dream of a Champions League title
Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs De Ligt were not even born when Ajax last reached the UEFA Champions League semi-finals way back in 1997. However, 22 years later, these two teenagers are making the Ajax fans dream once again of claiming the title that has eluded them for more than two decades.
However, the journey was not easy for the 33-time Dutch champions. With an average age of 22, Ajax were a revelation in the 2017 Europa League but were ultimately defeated by Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in the final. That was followed by a horrible campaign in Europe and a second-placed finish in the Eredivisie meant that they had to start from the first round of qualifiers.
The club battled through four rounds of qualifiers and then finished second in the group stages with two draws against German champions Bayern Munich. The tournament kept throwing heavyweight opponents in their path but Ajax had an answer for every adversity and after thrilling wins over Real Madrid and Juventus, they find themselves face-to-face against Tottenham Hotspur in the last four.
While the average age of the team may have increased since the Europa League final, the core is still made up of young talents. The 19-year-old De Ligt is the youngest footballer to captain a side in the Champions League semis while midfielder De Jong has impressed everyone with his speed and commitment at the centre of the field. Add young talents like Andre Onana, Donny van der Beek and David Neres to the mix and we have a core of players who have brought back ‘total football’ to Ajax.
The young talents have always been the trademark of a strong Ajax side but what sets this batch apart is the wealth of experience. The acquisitions of 30-year-old Dusan Tadic from Southampton and 28-year-old Daley Blind from Manchester United may have received lukewarm response from the fans but their impact has been undeniable. Blind has strengthened the once-dodgy defense while Tadic has transformed himself into a goal machine with 34 goals and 21 assists from just 51 appearances.
Former Bengaluru FC manager Ashley Westwood has been a fan of Ajax’s football this season and when asked about the secret behind their success, he lauded the footballers for their efforts. “You need good players to perform well in Europe and Ajax have a bunch of them. Any one of them will find a place in any big team and the secret behind their success has been simple football. They have passed well among themselves and their execution has been brilliant,” he told Hindustan Times.
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While the players have no doubt performed brilliantly for Ajax this season, the unsung hero of this campaign has been manager Erik ten Hag. Ten Hag spent two years at Bayern Munich coaching their reserve side at the same time as Pep Guardiola and the disciple of Ajax legend Johan Cruyff has tried to mix a modern approach with the legendary ‘total football’ that Cryuff made famous in the 1970s. The result has been brilliant for the club who have lost just seven times in 69 matches under Ten Hag and have already established themselves as the ‘giant killers’ of European football this season.
Former Manchester City footballer Mark Seagraves was all praise for how Ten Hag has managed Ajax this season. “Ten Hag has played a big role in the team’s success. He has allowed his players to play freely and without any fear. When you get that along with the amount of natural talents they have, they cause a lot of problems for even the top sides in the competition ,” he told HIndustan Times.
Another former Manchester City footballer Terry Phelan echoed similar sentiments as he believes that the team has gone back to playing the classic ‘Ajax’ way. “They have a bunch of players who are doing really well and their manager has also adapted well to the Ajax way. The young group of players have nothing to lose and their free flowing football has been an absolute treat,” he said when asked about Ajax’s success.
The story of this squad has certainly been magical but this will not be the team that will play for Ajax next season. Ajax have been sort of a feeder club for Europe’s elite in the last decade and with De Jong already signing for FC Barcelona, we are looking at an exodus that has become all too familiar to the fan base. De Ligt is strongly linked to the Catalans as well while Van der Beek and Neres will have no dearth of suitors after this season. Even their opponents - Tottenham - have four Ajax alumnus in their squad namely Davinson Sanchez, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen.
But, that is a worry for the end of the season. Right now, the world is waiting eagerly to see how the young Ajax side performers and whether they can finally end their long wait for European glory.
Watch UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals Live and Exclusive in India on 1st and 2nd May 2019, 12.30 am onwards on Sony Ten 2 channels.