The ingenious play of AFC Ajax has been a sight to behold and has many ardent fans across the globe still in awe of their stellar run in European soccer’s biggest competition. The Eredivisie club who once was a traditional power has been a breath of fresh air in this year’s Champions League. The club shocked the football world by knocking off European heavyweights in three-time defending champions Real Madrid in the round of 16 and Italian perennials Juventus in the quarterfinals.
The bold, daring and youthful side have easily been the best story of the Champions League.
Not many expected them to make a run to the semifinals for the first time since 1997 but if you’ve been observing closely, this bunch has proven they can slay any obstacle that appears in front of them.
Ajax is made of up a slew of young, talented, confident and skillful players that the Amsterdam outfit has sharply shaped through their academy’s top-level development program and have an already established playing style in place that teenagers get comfortable with early on.
The singular advantage that bigger clubs hold over Ajax is in the department of power, influence and loads of money, which they can't always compete with. That’s where it becomes difficult for them to hold on to their prime players, knowing that they are so sought after by the bigger clubs with more financial means to work with.
Knowing full well that this group of personnel won’t be together next season has made this ride extra special, while also revitalizing Dutch football much to the delight of football purists who are still salivating over the Johan Cruyff days in the 1960s/early 1970s.
This Ajax side play the club’s prototypical 4-3-3, press high with nonstop energy and show a willingness to make every player an attacking threat at every moment and position on the pitch. Interestingly enough, the club’s two best players leading the way are right out of the academy in midfielder Frenkie de Jong (21-years-old) and teenage centre-back Matthijs de Ligt (19-years-old).
Watch de Jong play with the ball at his feet and you might think you are witnessing the second coming of Cruyff. Set to play with Barcelona next season, he has been skedaddling around and away from the best midfields that Europe has had to offer with ease during this competition.
de Ligt, the youngest captain in Ajax history, has played like a seasoned vet. He's been a physical force in playing the ball and reliable in the air defending balls into the box off crosses and set pieces. That level of defending was on display against Juventus striker Cristiano Ronaldo in the second leg of the quarterfinals when he made his occasional darting runs into the penalty area.
As part of the club’s youth movement you'll find attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech (26) with his creative, maneuvering ball skills down the right flanks circling around defenders, shrewd and quick forward David Neres (22), midfielder Donny van de Beek (22) providing defensive pressure and movement off the ball and goalkeeper Andre Onana (23).
The youngins blend in ideally with experienced footballers like left-footed striker Dusan Tadic (30), the Eredivisie second-leading goal scorer at 22 this season and centre-back Daley Blind (29), who has formed a steady partnership in the backline with de Ligt.
Together, the headliners of the mega tournament have ripped through the big boys. They knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus essentially the same way.
Coming out in a 4-2-3-1 (which they have at times this season), they exhibited beautiful, quick, inspiring touch football that yoked around two aging midfields and constantly worked their way into the final third where they created numerous chances, even when the ball didn’t go in the back of the net.
Everything about them was fluent and assured, especially in possession, which they ruled. Their intensity was the most impressive, pressing at will, creating turnovers, winning balls, moving swiftly around the field and showing youthful exuberance that the Spanish giant and eventual Serie A champions couldn’t keep up with.
While the majority of analysts thought this assemblage of youngsters would wilt under the pressure on the biggest stage, they did nothing of the sort. They welcomed it, were composed and grabbed the moment by the throat as the underdogs.
Just look at this build-up play and passing on this possession against Juventus in the second leg. Brilliant stuff!
Total Football at its best ladies and gents!!!
Cruyff would be proud watching the philosophy he manufactured.
They’ve been just an utter pleasure to watch. If you love sports underdogs, then this Dutch side is bound to be your cup of tea.
Outplaying one powerhouse is something, like Ajax did to Real Madrid in both legs, especially with their 4-1 win at the Bernabeu in the second leg, which in my opinion was the best performance by a club throughout the Champions League this season.
However, beating two European towers, as they did against one of the three best clubs in Europe this year in Juventus, by schooling a more veteran-laden bunch in the second half in the second leg and seizing a gritty win in Turin, is no fluke my friends. And you can’t forget the fact that they earned a pair of draws with Bayern Munich in the group stage as well.
Ajax is here to wreck every club in front of them and make you a believer. The club’s fifth Champions League title is well within reach. If you're not on board yet, then shame on you. The football gods have to love what they are seeing. The journey continues on April 30.