F365’s early winner: Ajax and an all-too-rare achievement

Ian Watson

There is a lot of optimism around Ajax right now, which hasn’t always been in plentiful supply in recent seasons. Their production line continues unabated to crank out young talent but the European giants have fallen away from the pinnacle, not only on the continent but domestically too. 

For four straight years, Ajax have finished second in Eredivisie and with the Amsterdammers trailing perfect PSV by five points after nine games, Erik ten Hag’s side are already playing catch-up. But in Europe, Ajax are tantalisingly close to tangible progress. 

It has been 12 years since four-times winners Ajax were last seen in the knockout stages of the Champions League. For the last three seasons, just qualifying for the group stage has proved beyond them. But Noussair Mazraoui’s 92nd-minute strike against Benfica leaves Ajax just one win from the last 16. 

The meeting with the Portuguese giants on Tuesday night was seen as pivotal to the outcome of group E. A 1-1 draw away at Bayern Munich on match-day two left Ajax on four points, one ahead of Benfica. Whoever triumphed at the Johan Cruyff Arena moved into pole position and, eventually, it was the hosts who edged an understandably nervy affair with a deflected finish two minutes into added time. 

That right-back Mazraoui was in the position to score is reassuring evidence that some of Ajax’s traditions remains, even if success has deserted them of late. “Even though it was goalless towards the end of the game I still wanted to get forward,” the Moroccan said. “That shows the way we like to play; with attacking full-backs. So maybe it’s not surprising that both myself and Nicolas Tagliafico have each scored twice in the Champions League so far.”

And, of course, Ajax have never strayed from their philosophy of promoting youth. The side which drew at the Allianz Arena – a match they arguably should have won to become the first Dutch side ever to triumph at Bayern – had an average age of 24, with only Tagliafico, Daley Blind, Dusan Tadic and Lasse Schone above 25. Only Lyon and CSKA Moscow have fielded younger sides in this year’s competition.

The vultures are still circling, despite Ajax’s apparent stagnation. Goalkeeper Andre Onana, 22, and 21-year-olds Donny van de Beek, David Neres and Kasper Dolberg have all attracted attention from big clubs in grander leagues, while 19-year-old centre-back Matthijs de Ligt is tipped for Barcelona.

So too is Frenkie De Jong, but Barca best be quick to avoid the crush. There is not a European giant who does not want a piece of the 21-year-old, with Pep Guardiola apparently desperate to fill the biggest hole in his squad with the former Willem II youngster who can play in central defence or midfield, all the while drawing comparisons with Ronald Koeman and Franz Beckenbauer. 

But Ajax are loathe to sell mid-season, especially if they secure a place in the knockout stages for the first time since De Ligt was a six-year-old. Victory at Benfica – who’ve lost their last four home games in the group stage – in a fortnight will do the trick. And it feels right.

Ian Watson