You’d imagine that European glory for a club like Ajax is a given year in year out, especially considering our rich history and track-record. The harsh reality is that it really isn’t. If we are being true to ourselves, Ajax hasn’t really played a serious role in Europe since the lost Champions League final against Juventus in 1996. The fact we hadn’t reached the quarter-final stage of any European competition since 2003 confirms this. You can now begin to appreciate the euphoric state that the Ajax players and fans are in after yesterday’s result against FC Copenhagen.
To reach this stage of the Europa League really is a big deal. Having failed to qualify for the Champions League at the start of the season (again), things felt very familiar for Ajax. Getting knocked out by FC Rostov followed a pretty classic trend where Ajax gets dumped out of Europe by a ‘smaller’ team. What followed, however, was a great bounce-back in the group stages of the Europa League where Ajax emerged unbeaten in a group containing Celta de Vigo, Standard Liège and Panathinaikos. Not only did the team remain unbeaten, in many instances, they defeated their opponents with good football. The kind of football associated with Ajax in the club’s glory years. The kind of football that had gone missing in recent times. The kind of football that Peter Bosz promised to deliver. All of a sudden things looked rosy. We had breezed through a tough group – could we go far?
The knock-out stage of the competition saw the club being drawn against Polish outfit Legia Warsaw, and after a 0-0 draw at their place Ajax sealed the tie at home winning 1-0. It was a polished performance by a young team that executed tactics to perfection. And thus the positive vibe from the group stages remained. But we all know the drill from here, right? We’d get pitted against a weaker team at this stage and somehow find a way to lose and get knocked out.
FC Copenhagen duly came out of the draw and we all immediately cast our minds to the two previous encounters with the Danish club, in which they knocked us out on both occasions. Still, there was a feeling of optimism. Having lost 2-1 away from home, things didn’t look too bleak because of the crucial away goal – however, Ajax have thrown away various good positions in the past and I am sure there must have been a nagging feeling amongst supporters that we would do the same this time around. God, don’t we all love a good plot twist? What ensued was one of the most complete performances of the season where Ajax, backed by a vociferous home crowd, saw off the Danish threat in emphatic fashion. Everything fell into place, and it seemed like a decade of frustration and anger was made good by this performance. The speed of the ball circulation, the intensity of the pressing, the acuteness of the passing, the solidity of the defenders. It was all near perfect. The passion shown both on and off the pitch resulted in an old-school, illustrious European night for Ajax which saw the club advance to a stage of European competition that hadn’t been done since 2003; the quarter finals.
What made last night’s game and the current Europa League campaign in general all the more special, is the way the game has been played and the personnel used. Last night saw 17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt put in a complete and dominant display against players much stronger and taller than him. It saw Hakim Ziyech pulling the strings in the midfield in the absence of talisman and captain Davy Klaasen. It saw Viergever stand up and take charge of the backline after Veltman went off injured early, and it saw the likes of Bertrand Traoré and Kasper Dolberg put in the type of performance befitting of Ajax forwards.
Everyone who holds a warm heart for Ajax should savour this.
I don’t know how I would react if we tasted glory this season, let alone the whole of Amsterdam. I know we are all thinking it, so I will whisper it….could this, just could this be our year?