There was a moment in the first half of the Champions League last-16 tie between Real Madrid and Ajax when Frenkie de Jong, with a drop of the shoulder and a swivel of the hips, left Luka Modrić reeling in his wake as he glided away effortlessly with the ball, driving away at the heart of Los Blancos’ helpless midfield.
Repeating a similar trick several minutes later to leave the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner sprawled across the turf once more, the 21-year-old delivered a performance of such supreme quality and exuberance that Real’s seasoned veterans simply could not live with. De Jong’s display set the tone for Ajax’s brave, ruthless, attacking game plan that saw them dismiss the reigning champions of the last three seasons with a swagger, reaching the quarter-finals of Europe’s elite competition for the first time this century.
It won’t be the last time the Dutchman stamps his imprint against the 13-time European champions, as he prepares to move to Catalonia – where he will have already secured hero status – after agreeing a £65m move to Barcelona in January.
While Ajax will inevitably face their usual battle to hold on to their prized assets this summer, this was evidence that the current crop could yet achieve something truly special in this year’s competition.
Their historical status as continental giants of the game endures, but in recent years it has been more a case of the club’s rich heritage and former glories, as opposed to an accurate reflection of their relative standing in the contemporary European football landscape. Until now, perhaps.
They will still most likely be the underdogs whoever they draw in the quarter-finals, but having stunned the Bernabéu into silence with one of the great European away performances of the decade – only the seventh time a team has progressed after losing the first leg at home – few will underestimate the damage they can cause.
Having been hard done by in the first leg, suffering a 2-1 defeat with Nicolás Tagliafico’s first-half header harshly ruled out following VAR review, few gave Ajax much hope of overcoming the deficit away from home. Yet within 20 minutes, the visitors found themselves in a scarcely believable position of control in the tie.
Following Hakim Ziyech’s clinically-dispatched opener, Dušan Tadić waltzed away from Casemiro with the kind of audacious roulette spin so few players would even attempt outside of FIFA 19, before sliding in David Neres to reinforce Ajax’s advantage with a cool finish past Thibaut Courtois.
If VAR had spoiled Ajax’s night at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, it treated them kindly here after an absurdly lengthy review eventually allowed their third of the night, curled delightfully into the top corner by Tadić, after suspicions that the ball may have gone out of play earlier in the move.
For a brief few minutes, it seemed as though Real Madrid might just drag their way back into the tie following Marco Asensio’s neat finish, and the natural order might well have taken over. It would have been all too easy to wilt under the pressure and the sheer magnitude of the prize at stake, but as Lasse Schöne’s pinpoint free-kick nestled into the top corner just two minutes later, Ajax had delivered the killer blow.
Erik ten Hag’s side, with six of the starting line-up aged 22 or under, showcased not only a scintillating display of incisive, free-flowing football – among the very best the competition has seen this season – but a mental strength and maturity well beyond their years.
De Jong, who Ajax signed for a single euro from Willem II back in 2015, may have been the first to secure a high-profile switch to one of Europe’s financial behemoths, but the performance of Matthijs de Ligt – Ajax’s youngest ever captain – was equally paramount to the team’s victory.
Having been at the club since the age of eight, graduating through the youth academy, De Ligt is the next in seemingly perpetual the conveyor-belt of prodigious talent which has seen the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Luis Suárez and Christian Eriksen grow and develop at Ajax before moving on to become elite players in Europe’s biggest leagues.
Although hardly believable, given his stature and level of ability, De Ligt is still only 19 years of age, and is reportedly attracting strong interest from the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester City. Ajax know they won’t be able to hold on to him for much longer, but he is just the latest graduate of an academy with a pedigree for producing the next world-class superstars.
Of the side that dismantled Real Madrid, three came all the way through the academy system, while none cost more than £14m – the most expensive acquisition being Daley Blind, who returned to his boyhood club in the summer of 2018 after a four-year spell at Manchester United.
The combined cost of Ajax’s XI was a startling £48m, representing not just a sensational victory in isolation, but a wider victory for the competition as a whole. In an age where clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, pumped by oil-rich billionaires, have sought to gate-crash Europe’s elite, the sanctity of Champions League requires clubs like Ajax to succeed.
Even in this hyper-commoditised and globalised era of modern football, Ajax represent a certain purity built on an organic model of sustainable growth by youth development, which should serve as an inspiration to other clubs of a similar profile across Europe. In reaching the quarter-finals, they have already surpassed all expectations and in signalling the end of an era for this hugely successful Real Madrid vintage, they have demonstrated that a vast chasm in financial resources – and the ensuing power imbalance – can be surmounted. They’re living up to the famous Johan Cruyff quote: “Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.”
A repeat of the iconic three-time European Cup-winning Ajax side of the 1970s is, in truth, a fanciful prospect, given the impossibility of holding on to their most prized assets for long enough to build a side capable of recreating another dynasty. For now, though, this Ajax side should be lauded as one of the most thrilling and enterprising the competition has seen for some time, and for producing one of the great modern European nights. And they just might exceed expectations again.
By Joel Rabinowitz @joel_archie