Back to the future – when Ajax almost shocked Europe

In the 2018/19 season, Ajax were seconds away from a first Champions League Final since 1995. What made their European adventure so exciting?

It has to be one of the most thrilling moments in recent footballing history. And also one of the cruellest. With literally seconds remaining on the clock a young, exciting and vibrant Ajax team were on the verge of taking the final giant leap on a wonderful European journey that had started in the qualifiers 11 months earlier by reaching the final of the 2019 Champions League.

The majority of the 50,000 capacity Johan Cruyff Arena was about to erupt into a frenzy and were basically already celebrating. The game was done. Despite Tottenham Hotspur having pulled the match back after two first-half Ajax goals, the Eredivisie side were going through 3-2 on aggregate. One of Europe’s great historic clubs was about to reach its first European Cup Final in almost a quarter of a century. A mouth-watering tie between the four-time Champions and then five-time winners Liverpool was about to be confirmed. 

Then, in the game’s final attack in the 96th minute, Lucas Moura latched onto a lay-off from Dele Ali and lashed the ball into the bottom corner to complete a hat-trick and performance he’ll surely never replicate, putting his team through on away goals. Cue absolute agony for Ajax, Dutch football and Arsenal fans. Not to mention a breathless hysteria amongst TV viewers and neutrals enthralled by the pure madness of the sport they love. The live reaction of Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand and Glenn Hoddle in the BT Sport studio said it all

Photo Credit: Game of the People

For many, mixed in amongst the delirium was a large dosage of appreciation for Ajax, and the feathers they had ruffled on an extraordinary campaign. So, what actually made a journey that ultimately fell short quite so special and fond in our more recent collective footballing memory? 

One big reason was due to the immediate realisation and sadness in the aftermath of the semi-final that the swipe of Moura’s left foot had probably been the defining final act for a young team that was about to be broken up. The so-called ‘big boys’ of European football had taken note of their efforts during the tournament, as well as domestically, where they had won the Dutch Eredivisie and the KNVB Cup. The sharks were already circling, eager to pick off the talented squad assembled by Erik ten Hag, one by one. It was this looming inevitability that made this European adventure, and its harsh end, so enthralling. 

Indeed, the core of the team has eventually moved on. Players who many would have initially responded with a simple ‘Who?’ as Ajax gradually swept opposition aside, had by the end become some of Europe’s most sought-after players. By the semi-final, then 22-year-old midfield metronome and now heartbeat of the Netherlands international team Frenkie de Jong had already agreed to join Barcelona. Later that summer, inspiring 19-year-old Captain Matthijs de Ligt was snapped up by Juventus and talented 22-year-old striker Kasper Dolberg had left to Nice. By January, star winger Hakim Ziyech had agreed to join Chelsea at the end of the season and during that summer key midfielder Donny van de Beek followed him to the Premier League to join Manchester United. We could go on… 

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The route Ajax took to their first Champions League semi-final since 1997 was also no fluke. One of the features that made it so exciting was the giants they slayed along the way. Their journey had a feel-good David vs. Goliath narrative to it. After having to first get through three play-off rounds and six matches, they ended up undefeated in their group, with a win over Benfica and two engaging draws against one of the tournament favourites Bayern Munich providing a little hint at the talent and belief amongst the team.

However, no one could predict what happened next. Drawn against defending Champions Real Madrid, who had won four of the last five European Cups, they didn’t just beat them but thrashed them 4-1 in the Santiago Bernabéu, overturning a tight 2-1 first leg deficit. Many thought that would be it for their fun embarrassing teams with a far greater depth of resources. A flash in the pan. They were wrong. In the quarter-finals, they knocked out a Cristiano Ronaldo led Juventus, winning the second leg in Turin. The brutality of how they finally succumbed to Spurs in the semi-final also deflects from just how good they were that night and when going to a raucous Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and winning the first-leg. 

Photo Credit: DNA India

What impresses me most isn’t the hard work or the technique, but the way they fill the pitch…They see the spaces, they manage time and all this at an early age”. These were the words of one Alessandro Del Piero after Ajax had knocked out his beloved Juventus. Certainly, much of the praise heaped upon Ajax was not just that they were beating some of Europe’s biggest names but the way they were doing it. The Dutch legend Johan Cruyff once said that “Playing football is easy, but playing easy football is the most difficult thing” and this young Ajax team was a modern embodiment of the philosophy Cruyff adhered to. The intelligent shape on and off the ball, the speed of transition from defence to attack, the accurate and fast passing, the touch and caressing of the ball as if the pitch were a canvas not a rectangle of grass. It was a breath of fresh air for a European competition badly in need of it. 

Photo Credit: Sportsnet

And this leads to the final and key reason for the joy people found in this Ajax run – what it represented. Of what could still be achieved in the modern money-driven game, where those with the biggest budgets frequently have the best opportunity for success. It was proof of the results that could still be found by nurturing your own, sticking to a certain philosophy and giving youth a chance. That throwing money at star players isn’t always the answer. As stated by then Juventus Manager Massimiliano Allegri, “What Ajax are doing isn’t happening by chance…they are very good, technical and they broke us.” 

It was no fluke. The average age of Ajax’s starting eleven in the Champions League that season was just 24 years and 257 days. Two years earlier, they lost the Europa League final to Manchester United with an average age of 22 years and 282 days. The squad had grown together and then progressed in the world’s biggest club competition in a way that just wasn’t meant to happen anymore, sticking to a Club philosophy that won three European Cups in the 1970s. It was like looking back to the future. 

It could be years before a young squad make such an impact again in European competition. We unfortunately never got to see if that Ajax team could have replicated the 1995 side of Clarence Seedorf, Frank Rijkaard and Patrick Kluivert by lifting the European Cup. Yet looking back, perhaps what Ajax achieved that season, what it represented and how it made football fans feel irrespective of club loyalty, is in fact something that simply cannot be measured by trophies alone.  

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Photo Credit: Nos

Back to the future – when Ajax almost shocked Europe

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