A first European final in over 20 years for one of the most famous names in football means Ajax are back in the big leagues after decades in the doldrums
It’s official, Ajax Amsterdam are the revelations of this year’s Europa League. A team full of energetic and extremely skilled youngsters blew away yet another rival in Olympique Lyon (4-1) on Wednesday to take a giant step towards their first-ever European final since 1996.
Back then, Ajax played in the Champions League final which may suggest reaching the Europa League final is a step backward. That wouldn’t be a fair judgment, though, because Ajax simply don’t have the finances to do damage in the Champions League anymore. A similarity to the mid-90s, however, is that the illustrious Dutch club has numerous highly-touted young players coming through.
The generation of the 1995/96/97 consisted the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert to name a few, while these days it’s guys like Patrick’s son, Justin Kluivert (18) along with Kasper Dolberg (19), David Neres (20), Davinson Sánchez (20) and Matthijs de Ligt (17) that give hope to the Ajax faithful.
The latter two put on a stunning display in the semi-final vs. Lyon, sensing danger in a split second and acting accordingly with strong, but fair tackles. On the ball the two centre-backs looked like they were playing in their back garden, completely in control and able to pick out a killer pass at any moment. Sánchez, a Colombian international, left Atlético Nacional last summer for Ajax, ignoring Barcelona’s offer to come play for their B-team. Now, eight months later, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Barca comes knocking again, only this time to sign Sánchez for the first team.
Next to youthful elements of this Ajax team, there’s also a slightly more experienced core led by Davy Klaassen and Hakim Ziyech that is vital to Ajax’s success. The midfield pairing especially set the tone in terms of intensity and pressing and are therefore a big part in winning the ball back. On Wednesday, at times it was like watching the Dutch side of Johan Cruyff in 1974. Lyon were given no space with so many Ajax bodies closing in on the player on possession. It was the key to victory.
Another area where Ajax got the upper hand over their French rivals was on the wings. Amin Younes and Bertrand Traoré, who often get criticized for their lack of end product, scored three of the four Ajax goals. Both were causing all sorts of danger by cutting inside and beating their opponents with incredible ease.
So, with Ajax now close to a European final, it means two things. One; both the scouting and youth academy department can be complimented for their fantastic work. Bargain buys like Kasper Dolberg and Davinson Sánchez are a dream for any scout. Also, graduates like Justin Kluivert and Matthijs de Ligt should give a smile to a very youth coach’s face.
Then on to number two. Success for a club like Ajax means players will become in-demand. All of Ajax’s youngsters want to make the next step in their career as the Dutch league as well as the money available doesn’t compare to many other countries. It’s a frustrating reality for the Ajax fans.
The Europa League final would mark a successful chapter in Ajax’s rich history, however, and will make the Amsterdam Arena more attractive for players. With that factor and a golden generation coming through, Ajax might be a force to be reckoned with both domestically and internationally for the next couple of years.