When Ajax were hammered 4-1 by Rostov in the Champions League play-offs at the start of the 2016-17 campaign, newly appointed head coach Peter Bosz must have feared what lay ahead in his first season at the Amsterdam ArenA.
Ajax’s defence was all over the place, they lacked creativity in midfield and were struggling going forward. Not even the most optimistic fan could have expected the Eredivisie giants to make much of an impact in Europe.
But fast-forward nine months and the Amsterdam club are preparing for their first European final since losing the Champions League final to Juventus in 1996, with Manchester United awaiting in Stockholm on Wednesday.
A lot has changed since that Rostov mauling last August.
Nemanja Gudelj, Riechedly Bazoer and Anwar El Ghazi all started at the Stadion Olimp 2, but have since departed for pastures new, while then first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen left Ajax to make the step up to Barcelona shortly after the Russians condemned them to Europa League football.
In their place, Bosz has cleverly blooded Ajax’s most recent school of exciting, youthful talent, with Andre Onana, Davinson Sanchez, Matthijs de Ligt, Justin Kluivert and Kasper Dolberg – all watching from the sidelines a little under a year ago – developing into some of Europe’s most sought-after youngsters, with the addition of Hakim Ziyech from Twente another crucial piece of the puzzle.
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) May 18, 2017
Those squad changes in combination with Bosz’ attacking philosophy catching on after a tricky first few months have seen Ajax dazzle on the European stage, with Panathinaikos, Standard Liege, Celta de Vigo, Legia Warsaw, Copenhagen, Schalke and Lyon all dispatched en route to Stockholm.
The wins over Schalke and Lyon particularly had Ajax fans reminiscing about the mid-1990s vintage, who set the benchmark in Europe and beat the great AC Milan 1-0 in the 1995 Champions League final courtesy of a late Patrick Kluivert winner.
It has left some suggesting, perhaps more in hope than expectation, that Ajax can once again become the team to beat on the continent.
Such hopes are hugely unrealistic, however.
Ajax have been impressive, but it must be measured in the context of the competition they faced. Schalke and Lyon are good teams in their own right, but are some way below the level of Europe’s elite in Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
And even though there is no denying Ajax have some hugely exciting players in their ranks -with Sanchez, De Ligt and Dolberg in particular seemingly destined for greatness – it would be unfair to compare them to the stars that helped Ajax conquer Europe under Louis van Gaal.
Van Gaal was privileged to work with greats such as Frank Rijkaard, Danny Blind, Frank and Ronald de Boer, as well as the burgeoning talents of Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert.
Bosz has the talent at his disposal, but it is a squad reliant on teenagers and players in their early 20s to make the difference.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) May 14, 2017
The 17-year-old De Ligt is immensely talented, but it is hard to expect him to take the game by the hand like Rijkaard and Blind did 20 years ago. The same goes for his partner in defence, the 20-year-old Sanchez, and striking sensation Dolberg, still only 19.
The only player over 25 that may start in Stockholm is experienced midfielder Lasse Schone, who will turn 31 this week. But the Denmark international has struggled to impress like his younger team-mates in the big games and may be overlooked in favour of the 20-year-old Donny van de Beek.
If Ajax were in a position to mould their group of wonderkids for the next three or four seasons, then perhaps they could make an impact in the Champions League in the coming years.
But the harsh reality is that Ajax will lose their best players well before they reach their prime when Europe’s wealthy big guns come calling.
Captain Davy Klaassen may be convinced to reject the lure of the continent’s big spenders due to his close ties to the club having come through Ajax’s famed youth academy, but even the attacking midfielder will eventually be drawn to a bigger league with the lucrative wages that come with it.
For Onana, Sanchez, Ziyech and Dolberg, Ajax are a mere stepping stone. The Amsterdam ArenA is the ideal place for them to develop at this stage of their careers, but club loyalties will count for little when the time comes to take the next step.
That is not to say that Ajax cannot spring the occasional surprise and again compete in the latter stages of the Europa League. The wins over Schalke and Lyon are proof they can challenge teams in Europe’s bigger leagues.
But, unlike in the 1980s and the 1990s, European finals will be the exception rather than the rule. The days that Ajax made five European finals within 10 years – which happened between 1986 and 1996 – are long gone.
They have a chance to make the most of this opportunity, though, and, who knows, perhaps there will be a certain symmetry in play.
Wednesday’s final will mark exactly 22 years since Patrick Kluivert was Ajax’s hero against Milan. Perhaps this time it will be son Justin who has his name being sung loud and proud by the club’s supporters.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) May 11, 2017
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