Ajax’s incredible, and at times reality-defying, run to the Champions League semi-finals is undoubtedly the story of the European season.
Not exactly upstarts, but hardly among the elites, no one would have envisaged this ever happening again, especially given the obstacles that have stood in their way on and off the pitch.
And though a return to the Champions League final was not meant to be – thanks to a ridiculous comeback from Tottenham Hotspur – the Dutch side can still hold their heads high.
Erik ten Hag’s men have played some wonderful football this season, in a throwback to the Ajax of old, which had so many neutrals cheering them on.
And it hasn’t just been in Europe. Wrapping up the Dutch Cup at the start of the month, Ajax have now complete the domestic double after getting their hands on the Eredivisie title.
It is the first time since 2014 that Ajax have been Dutch champions and will be good news across Europe to the many fans the club will have gained this season.
But just why have we all fallen in love with Ajax this season?
Back among the big boys
Ajax’s love affair with the European Cup is well–documented. Since the competition’s inception they’ve reached six finals, winning four, including three back-to-back, which puts them in exclusive company with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. However, since the landmark Bosman Ruling in 1995, the Amsterdam club has faced hard times.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 16, 2019
Heading into this campaign, their last European Cup semi-final appearance came all the way back in 1997 – against Juventus – and with each passing season, as the super wealthy clubs begin to monopolise the Champions League, a repeat became a pipe dream. No one expected them to end that run, let alone this season, but they only went and done it. De Godenzonen are finally a 21st century club.
It’s not easy being a top club from outside Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, historically and contemporarily. Before the aforementioned Bosman ruling and subsequent globalisation of the game, only a handful of teams from outside England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France were reaching the Champions League final four.
— Eredivisie (@eredivisie) April 16, 2019
The expansion of the competition in 1997/98, making it accessible to more than one club from a single nation, has only exacerbated the situation. Dynamo Kyiv (1999), FC Porto (2004) – who ended up as champions under Jose Mourinho – and PSV Eindhoven (2005) were the exceptions. Ajax, following their heroics, ended a 14-year run drought which no doubt restores people’s belief in football again.
An unexpected journey
Not only did Ajax reach the Champions League semi-finals, but they did it the hard way. Of the 16 sides who reached the knockout phase, the Amsterdammers were the only team who had to qualify for the initial group phase.
The consequences of recent poor Dutch performances in European club football meant even champions PSV weren’t guaranteed a spot. Erik ten Hag’s men began their journey in the second qualifying round, just days after the 2018 World Cup ended.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 16, 2019
Having got past Sturm Graz, Standard Liège and then Dynamo Kyiv Ajax were drawn with Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK Athens. During these games it became clear something special was brewing. Finishing second behind Bayern ended up being a blessing in disguise.
Real Madrid and then Juventus should have been too much for the Eredivisie outfit, but both sides never really troubled Ajax who often toyed with them like it was the mid 90s all over again.
By making it to the semi-finals, the record 33-time Dutch league winners are the first Champions League team to come through three qualifying rounds and make the final four. Inspirational doesn’t begin to cover what they achieved.
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Though it would end in heartbreak, Ajax’s Champions League campaign proved just how far they have come in Europe this season.
In previous campaigns they were sitting ducks for the continent’s elite as well as those below. But something changed. Manager Ten Hag should take full credit; he’s found a system that not only gets the best out of his technically-astute players but suffocates opponents seemingly far greater than his side. At home they were frighteningly devastating – aside from the second-half against Tottenham – but on their travels Ajax really looked the part.
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) April 30, 2019
In total, Ajax played six away games in the Champions League proper without tasting defeat. A commendable draw in Munich, which should have been a victory, was followed by a hard-fought point in Lisbon against Benfica. Then came the wins. AEK were brushed aside in Athens, Real met the same fate in Madrid before Juventus and Tottenham joined the list. It means for the first time since between November 1995 and March 1997 (a total of seven wins), Ajax have won four consecutive away matches in the Champions League.
One of the biggest reasons that Ajax are so exciting to watch is their almost fearless attacking style of play, which has brought tons of goals.
The Amsterdammers ended the Eredivisie season with 119 goals from their 34 games, the 14th time Ajax have reached the simply ridiculous goal level of 100+. But it is not the record. That belongs to the Ajax team of 1966/67, which scored 122 goals in the Eredivisie.
But it doesn’t stop there. Ajax’s prolificacy in front of goal has spilled over into all competitions, with Erik ten Hag’s men managing 175 in the 2018/19 campaign. This is the most by any Dutch side in history.
When we craved goals this season, we knew Ajax would satisfy our needs.
Dusan Tadic equals Johan Cruyff
In reality, no one will ever go close to imitating Johan Cruyff at Ajax, with the Dutchman’s impact going above and beyond what he did on the pitch.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 15, 2019
But Dusan Tadic has equalled a goalscoring run set by the great man himself, once again proving he is not the same person sold by Southampton in the summer.
The Serbian has scored 28 Eredivisie goals in total this season, with particular success at the Johan Cruyff Arena, scoring in his past 10 league games there. Tadic’s run sees him join Cruyff, Jari Litmanen and Bryan Ruiz as only the fourth plater to score in 10 consecutive Eredivisie home appearances.
In fact, Tadic has only failed to score at the Johan Cruyff Arena on three occasions in the league this season with Heracles, Willem II and ADO Den Haag those managing to stop him.
Sticking to their young guns
Throughout the years, Ajax’s ethos has been developing footballers, ever since former player Rinus Michels turned up as the club’s new manager in 1965. His vision laid the groundwork for what followed and Ajax have fielded at least one academy graduate in 1,756 consecutive games – a run stretching back to September 1981.
🇳🇱 Youngest debutant since 1931
🇳🇱 Teenager with the most caps
🇪🇺 Youngest ever in a European final
✖️ Youngest Ajax captain
✨ Talent of the Year in @eredivisie
🏆 First defender -> Golden Boy
🆕 Youngest Ajax player with 100 games. Matthijs, you're something else. 😍 pic.twitter.com/aje8iFx6xG
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) February 28, 2019
At the heart of their young team this season has been European Golden Boy Matthijs de Ligt, the 19-year-old captaining Ajax to their glory.
The centre-back has been at the heart of everything positive for Ajax this season, and is already being linked with a move away – potentially joining team-mate Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.
But before that happens, his season needs to be admired, becoming the first defender to be named European Golden Boy, the youngest Dutchman to score in the Champions League knockout rounds and lifting the Eredivisie title as a teenager.