Ajax: Entertaining dark horses or genuine contenders?

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In May 2019, Ajax were seconds away from reaching their first Champions League final since 1996. The team was full of young, budding Dutch superstars, Matthijs De Ligt, Frenkie De Jong and Donny Van de Beek, the latest shining lights from the prestigious academy. During that campaign they had gone toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich in the group stage, produced a devastating display at the Bernabéu to dispatch Real Madrid in the Round 16 and seen off Juventus in the Quarter-Final.

However, as Lucas Moura rolled the ball into the far corner to complete his hat-trick and the extraordinary Tottenham Hotspur comeback, the dream was snatched away. Ajax would lose the tie 3-3 on away goals and that young, exciting team would break up with its core being stripped for parts to be displayed as shiny new parts for Europe’s rich elite.

Rebuilds usually take a while to complete and the Champions League is seen, in modern times at least, to be attainable by only a handful of clubs. It is perhaps unusual then, to view the 21/22 Ajax side as no more than a swashbuckling side show to the main event, rather than genuine contenders. If you have seen them at all this European campaign, however, you might be convinced that this is the year the historically great club claim the top prize.

The Dutch side may not be in the strongest group, with Borussia Dortmund, Sporting CP and Besiktas providing the opposition, but with four matches played the Amsterdam club have won all of them, scoring 14 goals and conceding two. It is, however, the way they have sliced through these teams which is most striking. They’ve been ruthless and relentless in attack playing some joyous football along the way. The Dortmund home and away ties were a testament to this as Ajax won 4-0 and 3-1 respectively against the toughest opponent of the group.

Individually, Erik ten Hag’s side, may not be as talented as the 2019 version, but there are some standouts. Ryan Gravenberch, 19, already looks the part of the modern midfielder, his 6ft 3inch frame gliding across the park at ease while knitting the play together. Brazilian winger, Antony, 21, is the type of trickster on the right-hand side that will strike fear into the most formidable full backs and a creative streak that sees him top of the tournaments assists chart with 5. Wily veterans, Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind, remain from the 2019 side to provide some experience and guile when needed. Up front Sebastian Haller, often a forlorn looking figure during his spell at West Ham, is amazingly in second place in the top scorer table. His seven goals in the group stages see him behind only arch finisher Robert Lewandowski.

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Their domestic form is nothing to be dismissive of either. While they would have expected to be top of the pile in the Eredivisie, the full table makes for eye-watering reading. Having played 13, they’ve scored 42 and conceded just two. Although level on points at the summit with rivals PSV, they have an incredible +27 goal difference on their Eindhoven counterparts.

There’s an argument that Ajax haven’t been properly tested yet in Europe, but they have so far navigated the group stages with some ease and will go into the knockout rounds fearing nobody and capable of dismantling anybody. With genuine belief that they belong among the contenders, it would be a foolish team that takes them lightly.

Ten Haag has most recently emerged as a strong candidate for the vacant Manchester United position. Having been in charge since 2017, the natural inclination may be for the 51-year-old to look for a bigger job than his current one. It would make sense to stay where he is until at least till the end of the season and what better way would there be than to sign off with a Champions League crown.