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Can crisis-hit Ajax continue Champions League success?

Sebastian Haller and Ajax are enjoying a great campaign, but only managed a draw against Benfica. Mario Cruz/EPA.

Only Bayern Munich and Liverpool boasted a record as strong as Ajax’s in the group stage of this season’s Champions League. Indeed, the trio were the only three teams to win six from six on their way into the last 16 with Erik ten Hag’s side catching the eye with a serious of impressive performances that included home and away victories over Borussia Dortmund.

Historically, Ajax are one of European soccer’s heavyweight clubs. They have been crowned European champions four times previously, but the sport’s landscape has changed since they last won the Champions League back in 1995. The table has been titled in favour of clubs from Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues, making it harder for sides from countries like the Netherlands to compete.

Nonetheless, there is a sense Ajax have built something special. With the right draw, ten Hag’s team could go deep in this season’s Champions League. It was only three years ago that Ajax made it as far as the final four and many believe this current team is stronger than the 2018/19 side.

They were certainly favourites to make it past Benfica and into the quarter-finals. But after a 2-2 draw in the first leg, that status is very much in doubt. The draw was followed by a 2-1 capitulation at the hands of the Go Ahead Eagles and closer-than-expected 3-2 wins over Waalwijk and Cambuur – neither considered particularly strong Eredivisie outfits.

Ajax are facing a difficult situation. Marc Overmars left his post as the club’s director of football after it emerged he’d acted inappropriately towards female members of staff. Recent reports have shifted towards a culture of misogyny that has been allowed to fester over a number of years at Ajax. Many at the club have serious questions to answer.

Separating this off-the-field crisis from Ajax’s on-the-field brilliance is a challenge. Many will understandably feel the club’s success this season has been tainted. However, Ten Hag and his players have no choice but to put all this out of their minds in order to achieve their potential as a soccer team.

Intensity and high tempo are the hallmarks of Ajax’s game. They are an intelligent team full of talented, technical players who know their role within the unit inside out. Ajax can keep hold of possession or hit opposition sides in quick transition. They are a well-rounded outfit that can operate in a number of different ways depending on the task at hand.

Individually, Ajax possess quality all over the pitch. In Sebastian Haller, Ajax boast the top scorer in this season’s Champions League. The former West Ham striker has also netted 19 times in 23 Eredivisie appearances and has given Ajax a focal point around which ten Hag has built his attack. 

Antony is a dynamic, explosive wide attacker who has taken his game to the next level this season. The Brazilian is still only 21 years old and looks set to become the next superstar to have passed through Ajax. Before he inevitably moves on, though, there is still plenty more for Antony to achieve at his current club.

Central midfielder Ryan Gravenberch is another destined for the top of the sport. The 19-year-old is a key figure for club and country and is the model modern midfielder in that he offers plenty on both sides of the ball. Chelsea and Manchester United have already been linked with moves for Gravenberch.

Jurrien Timber, Noussair Mazraoui, Mohammed Kudus and Edson Alvarez are also highly rated young players while Dusan Tadic, Daley Blind and Steven Berghuis offer experience. There is a good balance to the group at the Johan Cruyff Stadium both in terms of their age profile and skill set. 

The problem for Ajax is that such success this season will springboard many of their players and even their manager to other clubs. Ten Hag, for instance, has been strongly linked with Manchester United who are looking for a new permanent manager. In many ways, ten Hag fits the bill for the Premier League club. Before United, Tottenham Hotspur had been linked.

There is enough young talent at Ajax for the club to survive without ten Hag, but the 52-year-old is a sharp tactical thinker who gives the Dutch champions an advantage over most opposition teams. His exit at the end of the season would deal Ajax a major blow. This season might be their only chance to make a mark at the top of the European game with this particular group.

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