Football Features

A combined XI of active academy graduates Benfica & Ajax gave football

By Ben Green

Published: 18:00, 21 February 2022 | Updated: 13:58, 23 February 2022

Ajax and Benfica meet in the Champions League round of 16 this week, in a contest that will bring two of Europe’s biggest academy clubs together.

Amsterdam and Lisbon have long been hotbeds for emerging young talent, with many of the game’s greatest players developing and honing their respective crafts at either Ajax or Benfica; they are arguably Europe’s biggest talent factories — a notion that seems to carry more weight as the years go by.

Ajax’s core Cruyffian principle of promoting from within — rather than frivolously spending — and cherishing academy products has defined the club’s philosophy long before the great man first laced up his boots — and that mantra continues to resonate with their current iteration under Erik ten Hag.

Benfica, likewise, has been a talent conveyor belt for quite some time now, exploding in recent years. Their academy alumni of active stars reads like a who’s who of Ballon d’Or contenders, and their bank balance has certainly reaped the rewards of their ability to churn out wonderkids by the bucketful.

When these clubs meet for the first leg on Wednesday, the latest batch of starlets will be on display — one of whom makes it into our best XI of active Benfica and Ajax graduates. There’s a reason their academies are spoken of in the same breath as La Masia, and here’s why…

Goalkeeper: Ederson

Benfica appearances: 58

Current club: Manchester City

Sold for: £35m

Ederson first joined Benfica’s academy at the age of 16 after being released by Sao Paulo, but he wouldn’t stick around for too long. It took spells at second-tier Ribeirao and Rio Ave before the Brazilian would return to the Estadio da Luz and displace compatriot Julio Cesar between the sticks. A number of dextrous and gut-checking performances in goal for Benfica alerted the attention of Pep Guardiola, who was more than happy to make Ederson football’s second-most expensive goalkeeper at the time — his £35m price tag now looks a snip.

Benfica vs Ajax Champions League odds from Sky Bet

  • Benfica to win – 10/3
  • Draw – 14/5
  • Ajax to win – 3/4

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Centre-back: Ruben Dias

Benfica appearances: 137

Current club: Manchester City

Sold for: £65m

A successful shopping spree in Lisbon one summer prompted Pep to plunder Benfica’s ranks once again. In need of a ball-playing centre-back who could seamlessly adopt his play-out-from-the-back, press-and-possession system, Guardiola had no hesitations splurging just around £65m on Dias in the summer of 2020. A risky yet calculated move from modern football’s tactical grandmaster, as City immediately beefed up their backline while simultaneously acquiring a player who could function as a springboard for launching attacks from deep.

Centre-back: Sven Botman

Ajax appearances: 0

Current club: Lille

Sold for: £7m

Ajax turned a £7m profit on a player who didn’t even play a game for their first-team. The Dutchman came through the ranks at Amsterdam, joining Ajax at the age of just nine and featuring extensively for their reserve team, but chances in the senior set-up proved hard to come by. A fruitful loan move to Heerenveen in 2019/20 proved a breakthrough moment for Botman, which caught the attention of Lille, who happily couriered a seven-figure fee to the Dutch capital for his services. It’s safe to say Botman hasn’t looked back, recently forming a crucial centre-back partnership with Jose Fonte as Lille won Ligue 1 last season.

Centre-back: Matthijs de Ligt

Ajax appearances: 117

Current club: Juventus

Sold for: £67.8m

A player whose mature and authoritative showings belied his cherubic features when he was marshalling the backline for Ajax during their historic run to the Champions League semi-final in 2018/19. If Dusan Tadic was the reliable goal-getter, David Neres the skilful maverick, then De Ligt was the defensive fulcrum, a player who seemed to treat every game like a Sunday League match, crunching into every challenge like a madman, and yet, timing each tackle with the precision of a Swiss watch. Naturally, Juventus came knocking, and forked out an eye-watering sum to ensure he upped sticks for Turin.

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Right wing-back: Joao Cancelo

Benfica appearances: 2

Current club: Manchester City

Sold for: £13m

Cancelo played just one league match for Benfica which, incredibly, came against Porto. Quite the baptism of fire! He lasted 65 minutes before being replaced by another teenage prospect in the form of Victor Lindelof. Following that single showing in Portugal’s revered O Classico, Cancelo moved to Valencia on loan before completing a permanent move to the Mestalla. He then padded out his burgeoning CV with a few other heavyweight clubs in Inter Milan and Juventus before naturally gravitating towards the north-west of England a magnet for Benfica products under Guardiola.

Central midfield: Renato Sanches

Benfica appearances: 35

Current club: Lille

Sold for: £27.5m

Some clubs love an impulse buy, particularly off the back of an exceptional tournament showing. When Renato Sanches led Portugal to the Euro 2016 title at just 18 years of age, this did not feel like one of those impulse buys, but instead a fastidiously savvy signing from Bayern Munich. Of course, Sanches is now more renowned for his partnership with an advertising hoarding than the one he formed with William Carvalho in the heart of Portugal’s title-winning team. These days, though, he’s on the comeback trail, and let’s face it, he’s still only 24. He’s now pulling up trees with French champions Lille and appears to have recapture his teenage form.

Central midfield: Frenkie de Jong

Ajax appearances: 89

Current club: Barcelona

Sold for: £65m

It looked like a match-made-in-heaven. De Jong appeared to encapsulate everything Barcelona look for in a player: he oozed midfield elegance, passed with a laser-guided precision and moved with that rhythmic gait so synonymous with his Catalan predecessors. A signing has never made more sense. Unfortunately, he hasn’t exactly turned out like Xavi or Andres Iniesta at Camp Nou, but time is still on his side and the club will no doubt still harbour hope that he can yet become the midfield maestro they envisaged when they signed him.

De Jong’s Ajax progression wasn’t quite the conventional route as some of the others on this list. He first emerged at Willem II and spent the majority of his youth career in Tilburg, making two senior appearances at the age of 17. Ajax’s heavily-fruitful scouting network naturally caught scent of an emerging midfield dynamo and ultimately pounced. He was immediately drafted into Ajax’s academy and made nearly 50 appearances for Jong Ajax before eventually breaking into the first-team. A late addition to the club’s lower ranks, but an addition nonetheless.

Central midfield: Ryan Gravenberch

Ajax appearances: 91

Current club: Ajax

Sold for: N/A

Part of the current crop, the 19-year-old Amsterdammer is the real McCoy, racking up just shy of 100 Ajax appearances before he’s even turned 20, and turning out for the Netherlands on 10 occasions already. A physical presence at 6ft 3in, Gravenberch combines brains and brawn to control the midfield and is the current poster boy of the Ajax academy.

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Left wing-back: Sergino Dest

Ajax appearances: 38

Current club: Barcelona

Sold for: £18m

Name a more iconic duo than Barcelona and a former Ajax player. Dest exploded onto the scene in 2019/20 in a breakthrough campaign that would see Europe’s leading lights once again press their noses up against the Ajax shop window. Barca would, of course, win the tug-of-war and captured Dest for a modest fee of around £20m. A right-back by trade, Dest’s versatility means he can naturally slot in on the left for our combined XI, as he so often does for Barca.

Shadow striker: Bernardo Silva

Benfica appearances: 3

Current club: Manchester City

Sold for: £13m

Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V: Silva played just one league match for Benfica which, incredibly, came against Porto. Quite the baptism of fire! Yes, just like Cancelo, Silva played just one league match for Benfica, which came in the exact same O Classico as his current City team-mate. Unfortunately, they never met on the turf as Cancelo was withdrawn in the 65th minute, and Silva entered the fray for Filip Djuricic in the 82nd minute. Both would leave on loan that summer, Cancelo to Valencia (as mentioned) and Silva to Monaco, where he would link up with Kylian Mbappe, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and Co to famously win the 2016/17 Ligue 1 title. Dissatisfied with the number of ex-Benfica players in his camp, Guardiola moved for Silva in 2017.

Striker: Joao Felix

Benfica appearances: 43

Current club: Atletico Madrid

Sold for: £113m

Football’s fourth-most expensive player ever originated from Benfica. Felix stormed the continent in 2018/19 as a wonderkid of dazzling imagination, a player who backed up highlight reel flicks and tricks with genuine substance, bagging 20 goals across all competitions as Benfica won the Primeira Liga and reached the Europa League quarter-finals. Now at Atletico Madrid, Felix hasn’t quite recaptured those heights, possibility due a clash of styles, with his carefree unpredictability not the sort of profile that usually chimes with Diego Simeone’s esoterically disciplined approach. Still, a delight to watch when he is in his groove.