The Champions League has been pretty tedious at times in recent years. They say that variety is the spice of life, but we rarely get that in the latter stages of Europe’s primary competition. It’s the same old teams from the same old leagues that make it into the semi-finals and final.
The competition’s format is designed to ensure this is the case. The qualifying rounds are seeded, preventing smaller clubs from smaller nations getting into the group stages and tarnishing the sense of prestige that comes with it; many will filter out of Europe altogether and work towards getting a chance next year, while the lucky ones will make the Europa League. Seeding occurs in the group stage as well, with the bigger teams trusted to knock out the comparative minnows.
Then, with the presumption that Europe’s giants will have topped their groups, teams that finished first play the runners-up when they meet in the opening knockout rounds. This structure is designed to make it as difficult as possible for any minnow to make it to the end. It ensures the very best of Europe’s cream rises to the top and makes it to the extravagance of the competition’s final banquet.
You’ll have to go back 15 years to find a team from outside the top five leagues to reach the semi-finals: a PSV Eindhoven side containing the likes of Mark van Bommel, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Park Ji-sung. They lit up the tournament, from the qualifiers to the semis, before bowing out to AC Milan in the penultimate game. What their Dutch counterparts Ajax have done this season is perhaps even more impressive.
Ajax didn’t even make the Europa League group stages last season, let alone the Champions League. They’d lost against Nice in the Champions League’s third qualifying round, before losing 4-2 on aggregate against Rosenborg in the Europa League qualifying playoff. So when they lined up against Sturm Graz in this year’s second qualifying round there won’t have been many who expected the Amsterdamers to achieve what they have.
Their first Champions League goal of the season came with a huge slice of luck. Hakim Ziyech’s speculative effort from range went in off Jörg Siebenhandl’s hand into the top corner, despite the Sturm Graz goalkeeper being in the perfect position to stop it. There haven’t been many times Ajax’s success in the competition has come from anything but merit. though.
They breezed past the Austrians, winning 5-1 on aggregate, with the goal they conceded coming from a lapse of concentration in the dying moments. Next up was Standard Liège. Having surrendered a two-goal lead in the first leg, Ajax made light work of dispatching their Belgian opponents in Amsterdam, winning the second leg 3-0 while displaying some sublime football. Their third of the night was a sign of things to come, Dušan Tadić pulling off a roulette before playing the ball to David Neres who swept it home.
Ajax’s final hurdle on the way to the Champions League group stages came in the form of Dynamo Kyiv. They were up after just two minutes when Donny van de Beek’s effort crept through the goalkeeper’s legs. Dynamo equalised quickly but by half-time Ajax had already made the score 3-1. Queue social media videos, highlight reels from past glories and a whole load of excitement: Ajax were back in the Champions League proper.
The draw for the group stages put Ajax in Group E alongside Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK Athens. The expectation was that Bayern would be rampant and likely beat everyone in the group, while Ajax and Benfica would have a closely-fought battle for second. Their first chance to show their credentials in the group came against AEK at home. They duly obliged, putting three past the Greeks without reply, with Nicolás Tagliafico’s second of the game, a looping volley over the goalkeeper, by far the standout goal.
Next up was the game seen as the biggest test of the group stages: Bayern Munich away. Prior to this campaign, the Bavarians had made it to at least the semi-finals every season bar one since being losing finalists against Chelsea in 2012, winning their fifth European Cup in that time. Their side contained World Cup winners and some of the greatest players of recent years.
Despite going 1-0 up after just four minutes through a Mats Hummels header, they were unable to secure a win. In the 22nd minute, Noussair Mazraoui played a one-two with Tadić, controlled the return pass with his first touch, and fired the ball past Manuel Neuer with his second.
If you’ve been watching Ajax this season, you’ll be able to guess that once they got back on level terms, they didn’t sit back. They pressed Bayern whenever the home side had the ball and attacked with flair: Neres ran at their defence, Ziyech troubled the goalkeeper with his array of shots, while Tadić found and used small spaces to influence the play.
The hallmarks of what has made this Ajax side so loved are evident whether they’re thrashing one of Eredivisie’s minnows or fighting a European giant. It’s been central to Ajax’s philosophy for years and is what Erik ten Hag has built his success on. There aren’t many teams who can go to the Allianz Arena, attack Bayern and come away with a result; it turns out that Ajax are one of them.
A double-header against Benfica ensued. The Portuguese side have plenty of their own talent but were only able to get a point from the two games. It was another Mazraoui strike which won the first game for the Ajacied, while Tadić provided an equaliser in the second, bundling the ball over the line after Jonas had put Benfica into the lead.
The importance of getting four points from the two games was clear at the time, though the achievement behind it and the manner in which they got them was perhaps understated. Benfica are currently top of Primeira Liga and had a great European run of their own in the Europa League, eventually being knocked out in the quarter-final by Eintracht Frankfurt.
When Ziyech, ahead of the semi-final second leg, was asked what was their biggest challenge of the season was, he replied Benfica. Ajax, however, controlled both ties, bettering their opponents in areas including shots on target, possession and the accuracy of their passing.
A comfortable 2-0 win against AEK followed, securing progression to the knockout stages for the first time since 2006. It was the last game of the group stages which would catch everyone’s attention though: Bayern Munich again. If they avoided defeat, Ajax will have gone through all 12 games in qualifying and the group stages without a loss to their name.
Ajax went behind early on – as they had done in the away tie – when Robert Lewandowski latched onto Serge Gnabry’s through ball and slotted it away. The Amsterdamers came back again, though, doing so in a way which encapsulates the beauty of their play. Frenkie de Jong passed the ball to Ziyech, he flicked it behind for van de Beek, who fired it across goal for Tadić to finish at the back post. One touch each was all they required to carve Bayern’s defence open.
The remainder of the match was far from simple, though. Maximilian Wöber was sent off shortly after the hour mark for a challenge on Leon Goretzka, with Thomas Müller following him down the tunnel less than ten minutes later for kicking Tagliafico in the head. As with most teams, there was a risk that they would sit back and defend the draw against a side thought to be superior. Not Ajax; the game sprung into life after the 80th minute.
Tadić scored a penalty in the 82nd minute, Lewandowski converted from the spot in the 87th, before Kingsley Coman struck in the 90th. Then the 95th minute came around. Mazraoui sent a volley into the box which was deflected towards Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. He squared it to Tagliafico who nipped in to bundle the ball into the goal. The final whistle blew soon after. Ajax may not have been able to overcome Bayern to finish top, but they had finished the group undefeated, five points ahead of Benfica.
When the round of 16 draw put Ajax against Real Madrid, there was widespread debate about the game. At first, with the Spanish giants having endured a tough season, there were some who felt Ajax could progress. As the game began approached, however, the Ajacied were written off more damningly; after all, Real Madrid had won the last three editions of the tournament. They may not have Cristiano Ronaldo, but this was a side that most teams in the runners-up pot wanted to avoid.
While Ajax’s players had done the job on the pitch, their media team were also playing their part off it. A lot of things can be said about social media and the way in which it is used, but if a club does social media well, it can be the simplest way of hyping up the fans – not that they needed help getting excited about games. The videos they posted would become an integral part of the experience of watching Ajax in the Champions League.
They weren’t necessarily the most exciting, but the posts prior to the first leg against Real Madrid are potentially among the most poignant. In a video captioned “To all these special European nights so far”, as if speaking directly to the supporters, Champions League trophy and the competition simultaneously, players spoke of how much this meant to them. It wasn’t gimmicky and, from Tagliafico’s cheeky grin to the steeliness in Tadić’s eyes, it was clear they were ready.
When it came to the action on the pitch, Ajax were brilliant. They pressed and harassed Real with lung-busting persistence, though when they had the ball they played their own game. It felt thoroughly deserved when they first got the ball in the net. Lasse Schöne’s cross had been headed goalwards by Matthijs de Ligt. Thibaut Courtois made a complete mess of things, allowing the ball to pop up off his shoulder as Tagliafico headed it in.
However, referee Damir Skomina took it to VAR and adjudged that Tadić had impeded Courtois from an offside position. Ajax felt robbed; there has been a long-standing narrative that the biggest teams get favourable decisions – especially Real Madrid in the Champions League. VAR was supposed to prevent it, but it felt like a mere reinforcement.
The bitterness intensified on the hour mark when Vinícius Júnior cut through the Ajax defence and played the ball to Karim Benzema, who finished it off. Ajax had been on top for the majority of the game, but missed their chances. When Real possessed one of the world’s trickiest wingers and a poacher like Benzema, they were always going to get – and convert – a chance eventually.
Ajax came back the only way they know how: through smart, slick football. A total of five touches had taken the men in red and white from dispossessing the opposition to Ziyech putting the ball in the back of the net and running towards the Ajax supporters. This didn’t turn out to be enough to go into the away tie level, though, as Marco Asensio converted Dani Carvajal’s cross to make it 2-1.
The moment which came to define the first leg came three minutes later, when Sergio Ramos went through Kasper Dolberg, earning himself a yellow card. This meant that he would be out of the second leg and claims began to arise that he had got it on purpose so he could definitely play in the quarter-final first leg – not taking into account that Real had to get there first.
Ajax’s media team summed it up perfectly in two videos before the second leg. The first, in which you could hear family members of Ziyech, Dolberg and Van de Beek, was simply captioned “your dreams are now”. The way in which they spoke put the game into perspective. While this was just another game for Real, highlighted by Ramos’s decision, this was everything to Ajax’s players. For many, it was the first time they’d tasted anything like this before, the culmination of years of graft and sacrifice.
The choice of music in their other big pre-match video turned out to be foreshadowing thanks to SELVES’ song Somebody’s Gonna Get It. Ajax put in one of the greatest performances the Champions League, or modern football in general, has seen. It took them just seven minutes to get on the scoresheet. Real Madrid were dispossessed, Tadić ran forward with the ball, played it to Ziyech, who coolly finished off the chance.
Remember Tadić doing a roulette before setting up Neres against Sturm Graz was mentioned? Yeah, the same thing happened against Real Madrid, at the Bernabéu, to put them ahead in the tie. The Serbian rounded Casemiro, strode forward with the ball and played an eye of the needle through ball to Neres. It wasn’t simple for the Brazilian from that point, though. Being pushed wide by Luka Modrić, he dinked the ball over Courtois. If there was one thing Ajax could be criticised for in the first leg it was being wasteful in front of goal; the same couldn’t be said again. With 18 minutes gone, they were ahead.
The Real fans had already gone quiet when Vinícius Júnior hobbled off in tears; it soon fell silent. The men wearing black were highlighting their supreme skill, but determination was integral to their third goal, as Mazraoui kept the ball in play by millimetres. Three passes later and the ball was at Tadić’s feet. With three men in white shirts for company, he shifted the ball onto his left foot and sent the ball flying into the top corner. When VAR was called upon there was a sense of déjà vu, though the goal would stand. It was glorious and important in equal measure.
The home side did pull one back, Asensio getting his second of the tie, but it wasn’t to matter. Ajax scored again just two minutes after his effort, Schone firing a free-kick from a tight angle over Courtois’ considerable frame and into the top corner. The nature of the celebrations hinted that Ajax knew they were going through, both supporters and players erupting with their arms in the air.
This performance had so much more than just goals. Tadić got a 10/10 rating from the notoriously harsh L’Équipe; de Jong embarrassed Vinícius and Modrić before striding away with the ball in a moment which would be spread over the internet; while Daley Blind and de Ligt were indomitable at the back against one of the world’s best attacks. There were so many incredible performances and moments which came together perfectly. That level is what’s required in ten Hag’s system of high pressure; if one player is off, they will be exploited – but there was nothing for Los Blancos to have a sniff at.
One thing was now certain: whoever drew Ajax in the quarter-final wouldn’t be turning their nose up at them. That team turned out to be Juventus. The narratives arose: the Old Lady of Turin against the young stars from Amsterdam. Having knocked out reigning champions Real Madrid, Ajax now faced Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who had been the figurehead and talisman of that team before moving to Italy.
The first leg was played in Amsterdam, meaning Juventus were in for a sleepless night before the game. This wasn’t down to nerves, but the fact that Ajacied would be outside their hotel room in the early hours of the morning setting off fireworks. They’d done it against Real Madrid and many other teams; they were always going to do it again.
Supporters weren’t the only members of Ajax making noise before the game. The media team had once again been spot on with their pre-game content. The first video was captioned “This is #OurJourney. We’re not done yet…”, while the soundtrack for their second – Armin van Buuren’s Blah Blah Blah – stated, “we don’t even care about what they say”. There was a clear sense of defiance. Plenty of people had been writing Ajax off, but they were out to make it clear they weren’t listening to any of it.
Coming up against one of the world’s best defences, Ajax refused to change their game. While some commentators chose to refer to them as naive at different points throughout the first leg –as they had done at times against Real Madrid – this Ajax team were simply being expressive. The result was exciting as Neres danced his way round João Cancelo, Ziyech worked Wojciech Szczęsny from range, and de Jong dictated play from the centre of the pitch.
In the 40th minute, Ajax were hit with a real blow as Tagliafico was booked in what turned out to be a needless incident. With Neres losing possession, the Argentine left-back slid in to stop Cancelo racing forward, completely missing the ball. The referee had blown the whistle just before the challenge was made, but still opted to book the defender.
There was to be another, even more substantial blow just before half-time. Ajax’s defence had done a pretty good job on Ronaldo up to this point, but just moments before the whistle, Juve’s main man managed to find some space in the box, was picked out by Cancelo and powered his header past André Onana. Having been almost invisible the whole half, it was a glimpse into his more recent style.
If anyone thought Ajax were going to take it lying down, they were wrong. Just 30 seconds into the second half, Neres dispossessed Cancelo, burst forward and sent the ball into the far corner. With that Ronaldo header having been so close to half-time, you can imagine the men in red and white stewing in the changing room, taking on their instructions but just desperate to get back into the game. That they did it so swiftly shows their character.
Ten Hag made a substitution in the 75th minute which may have surprised some, as 19-year-old Jurgen Ekkelenkamp replaced Schöne. It was pretty obvious why Schöne was coming off, as he’d just been booked; it was the player coming on who was questioned. ?Having only played 47 minutes of first-team football before coming on in Turin, few knew his name.
There aren’t many clubs where a player with such little experience would be trusted in a moment like this, but this is Ajax. Ekkelenkamp had already been at the club for seven years, moving up the age groups and receiving his education at De Toekomst. He’d played for Jong Ajax in the Eerste Divisie and represented his country at youth level. Everything in the Ajax education is geared towards young players being called upon at big moments.
He was unable to capitalise on a half chance that he had worked for himself, though he did help his team in a different way. With Juventus breaking forward in injury time, Ekkelenkamp found himself tracking Ronaldo down the middle, with the ball out on the left. While the youngster had been sitting on the bench, he’d already seen Ronaldo score after losing his marker. He couldn’t afford for that to happen to him, so decided to jump on the Juventus star, bringing him to the ground.
The referee waved play on but, with Juve’s biggest threat in a moody heap on the floor, the move fizzled out. This kind of play isn’t necessarily what you associate with Ajax – and he got booked for it – but as frowned upon as this is, it was a clever piece of play which made sure Ajax went into the second leg level, as the final whistle blew just moments later.
Ajax’s message in the lead up to the second leg was one of confidence; from the supporters to Onana in his pre-game press conference, everyone within Ajax had the belief they could succeed. That confidence was tested when Mazraoui was forced off through injury just ten minutes after kick-off. It was tested even further when Ronaldo again got the opening goal of the leg, heading in from a corner in the 28th minute.
They didn’t waver, though, and managed to equalise after just six minutes. Ziyech hit a first-time effort that veered towards Van de Beek. The midfielder controlled the ball with his first touch, got it out of his feet with his second, and slotted it into the net with his third. While Juventus protested for an offside call which never came, Van de Beek ran to the corner and fell to his knees in celebration.
The timing of the goal – in the 34th minute – was more significant than it seemed at first glance as the number 34 has incredible importance to the club. They may be known for their incredible fandom, but those linked with Ajax have endured heartache since the life-changing incident that happened to Abdelhak ‘Appie’ Nouri. During a friendly in 2017, the midfielder, who was 20 at the time, suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch which led to permanent brain damage. It is an incident which has left its mark on the club and also ingrained 34, his shirt number, into the club’s collective fabric.
Former players, including Roma’s Justin Kluivert, Manchester City’s Phillipe Sandler and Napoli’s Amin Younes, all wear the number for their respective clubs. That Van de Beek, one of Appie’s closest friends, scored the equaliser in such an important match seemed like fate. He emotionally recalled to reporters after the game: “I looked up at the scoreboard after I had scored, saw it was the 34th minute and simply knew that wasn’t coincidence. It’s something very special. I will never forget this.”
Ajax didn’t stop with that goal, though. They kept coming, with Ziyech and Van de Beek both forcing Szczęsny into saves, though there was nothing he could do to stop de Ligt’s header in the 67th minute. With three Juventus men surrounding him, the Ajax captain rose highest, connecting with Schöne’s corner and sending the ball into the corner. Ziyech later thought he’d added a third goal of the night for his side, but it was ruled out for offside. It didn’t matter in the end – Ajax won the tie 3-2 on aggregate.
If overcoming Real Madrid forced people to take notice of Ajax, this victory had people fixated on the men from Amsterdam. While the players celebrated in the changing rooms, pundits were salivating and column inches across the world were being filled with talk of Ajax. They were in the semi-final; they weren’t supposed to be there, but they were.
A rarity in the hyper-critical world of football media, pretty much everything about Ajax was bursting with positivity. The day after they confirmed their own progression, Ajax discovered who they’d be facing in the semis: Tottenham, who had pulled off a shock of their own against Manchester City.
This meant that Ajax would be facing Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sánchez. Surprisingly, considering how far De Toekomst graduates have been spread across Europe, this meant they’d be facing a former player in the Champions League for the first time this season. This wasn’t the only first, though, as this was the only knockout tie this campaign in which Ajax weren’t the clear underdogs.
As ever, Ajax’s Twitter account was the place to go to gauge the mood ahead of the game. With help from some of the world’s most established commentators and pundits, the club’s greatest Champions League moments of the season were shown. Between the clips, Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar, who won the Champions League in 1995, spoke directly to those watching: “So it’s matchday again and it’s another big one. We are in the semi-finals of the Champions League, it sounds unbelievable but it’s true. We are not done yet, we have trust in our philosophy and the future. Our journey is far from over.”
It turned out that it could have been Tottenham’s campaign which was already over in the early stages. Ajax came out of the blocks so quickly that the home side looked overwhelmed. Without the injured Harry Kane and suspended Son Heung-min, with Ajax’s full-backs pushing Spurs’ wing-backs into forming a back five, Spurs had no outlet for the unrelenting pressure they were facing. That first half-hour saw Ajax playing peak Cruyffian football, with Spurs hardly able to get a touch of the ball.
They got their reward for this after 15 minutes. In similar fashion to his goal against Juventus, Van de Beek had just about stayed onside to receive a ball from Ziyech, a well-placed pass. Ajax’s number six showed extreme composure once he had the ball at his feet, selling Hugo Lloris with a fake shot before side-footing the ball out of the Frenchman’s reach.
The domination didn’t last, though, as Spurs got a foothold in the game and managed to assert their game on Ajax. This brought out a side of Ajax’s game which isn’t celebrated so much, with the men in black displaying their defensive discipline and awareness. Ajax had kept just one clean sheet in their last ten games in all competitions, yet they were able to keep Tottenham out with their intelligence and grit.
The home side were far superior in the air, troubling from set-pieces, so Ajax held a higher line when facing a free-kick so that Onana could come to collect the ball. This highlighted ten Hag’s tactical capabilities, but above all else, they were incredibly stubborn, pressing constantly and refusing to give Spurs time on the ball. Ajax nearly got themselves another goal as Neres raced forward, only managing to find the post.
Despite the second half not displaying their best attacking football, one of the most important and under-appreciated components of Totaalvoetbal and a De Toekomst education was on display: the ability to play in different positions. When Mazraoui replaced Schöne in the 65th minute, many commentators began deliberating where on the pitch the Moroccan would be going.
With the 21-year-old known as a full-back, they assumed he’d be going to his regular position, especially in a game of such magnitude, leaving them to debate formation changes or whether Joël Veltman would be moved. He seamlessly slotted into the central midfield slot the man he had replaced was vacating.
A player won’t go through the Ajax ranks playing in one position. De Jong was a number 10 when he joined from Willem II; de Ligt played youth games in midfield; Blind is able to play across the back line or in midfield with equal levels of comfort, and there are many more examples of players who have that versatility. That Mazraoui was able to come in and make an impact in the Ajax midfield, helping them maintain possession for longer periods, highlights the benefits of this approach.
The game ended 1-0 to Ajax, giving them the advantage while still leaving the tie in the balance. Mauricio Pochettino had lamented the lack of preparation his side had prior to the first leg, having to play a Premier League fixture while Ajax had a week off, partly due to King’s Day. However, he could have no such qualms ahead of the second, as the Sunday before their Wednesday meeting, Ajax played their KNVB Beker final against Willem II, winning 4-0, with the majority of their big stars enjoying large spells of the match.
Ajax took a blow before the second leg had even started with Neres was injured before the game, replaced by Dolberg. Regardless, they came out looking like a side still buzzing from their cup final win. Their mood was helped when de Ligt put them ahead in the fifth minute, losing Kieran Trippier and heading past Lloris.
Then came Ziyech’s inch-perfect strike in the 35th; it seemed almost inevitable Ajax would be going through. The Ajacied were on such a high, with the supporters in full voice – led by the ultras group, F Side – and their players on song. Everything seemed to be perfectly in place.
The best stories can have the cruellest of endings, though. A five-minute capitulation just before the hour mark let Tottenham right back into the tie and suddenly the mood had changed. The singing was just as loud but the jubilant nature had faded, while Ajax’s players were now simply trying to hang on. Veltman, Daley Sinkgravan and Lisandro Magallán were all brought on in defensive changes to try to keep Spurs out. This was the Ajax side who had played their way past the biggest teams in Europe; it shouldn’t have come to this against a visibly tired Spurs side, but it had.
Who knows why the second half played out the way it did. Maybe the sudden weight of expectation, something they hadn’t experienced before this game, was beginning to hold them down, restricting their free-flowing rhythm. When Ziyech hit the post, the wry grin that took over his face encapsulated the desperation every Ajacied was feeling as they awaited the final whistle.
It didn’t come, though, not quickly enough for Ajax, anyway. A long ball forward, a Fernando Llorente knockdown, a Dele Alli flick, a Lucas Moura finish: Ajax were out. While the Brazilian was mobbed by his teammates after securing his hat-trick, Ajax’s men sunk to the floor, crestfallen and in disbelief. Onana looked to the heavens while de Ligt dug his face into the ground as if he wanted to be swallowed up by it. There had been five minutes of injury time and when the ball hit the back of the net, the timer read 95:01. Ajax had come so close.
Having gathered the strength to get up for one last NFL-style attack, Ajax’s players returned to the cold grip of the Johan Cruijff Arena turf when the final whistle blew. They sat inconsolable, Tadić oblivious to his surroundings as despair took over, while de Jong covered his face from the cruel world he found himself in. It had been 287 days since Ajax’s Champions League campaign had started, in the same arena, with that 2-0 win over Sturm Graz, yet it was a few seconds which ultimately made the difference.
Their pain was palpable, but the supporters continued to sing defiantly. The club’s exit from the competition came in the worst possible way, but this set of players had given their supporters the best memories they’ve had in years, and for those of a certain age, the best of a lifetime. They had exceeded every expectation that was put upon them at the beginning of the campaign.
Those very players who lay with their face in the dirt will soon be fighting in the latter stages of this very competition again soon. It may not be for Ajax, but the likes of de Ligt and Ziyech will likely go onto pastures new, while de Jong will follow the well-trodden path from Amsterdam to Catalonia. Meanwhile, Ajax will be left to utilise what they still have and fight in the hope that they will one day be able to forge another group like this.
The reality, though, is that this was a once-in-a-generation side. This has been one of the greatest European campaigns in recent memory and Ajax have been integral to that. So in the short term, while this side is torn apart by football’s biggest predators as their stars are cherry-picked, people will see young faces buried in the ground as the defining image of Ajax’s 2018/19 Champions League campaign.
However, as time goes on, the romantic will remember Tagliafico bundling the ball over the line against Bayern, Tadić’s curling effort against Real Madrid, and de Ligt’s towering header against Juventus. They will remember how Ajax upset the Champions League’s established order.
By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis_95