Ajax’s Flair and Fun Confounds Real and Dazzles Bernabeu, even though we Know What this Means for their Future
There was a point, inside the first ten minutes of the second half at the Bernabeu. Real Madrid were two goals at home Ajax, 3-2 behind on aggregate. The European champions were staring early elimination in the face, and unsurprisingly, increased their urgency and tried to put Ajax under pressure. But Ajax weren’t fazed, and despite Real Madrid increasing their tempo and pressure on them, whenever the Dutch sides had the ball, they didn’t panic, they didn’t cower. Whenever they had the ball, they stroked it around, with confidence, with swagger, without fear or caution.
That has been the story of Ajax in the Champions League this season, not least in the two legs against Real, particularly at the Bernabeu last night. Playing without panic, fear or caution. Just simply enjoying their football, a delightful combination of fun and flair. Not long after, they bagged a third goal, amidst another VAR farce, another substantial benefit of their brilliant style.
And even after Real Madrid got one back right after it, even after Marco Asensio’s goal – a shot that hit the post and went in – that had Marcelo and the rest of Real Madrid bench and fans a bit optimistic, Ajax wouldn’t be fazed, and they duly got a fourth of their own. Not since 1997 had the Dutch side reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and when the draws were made in December, there was probably a unanimous assumption that their wait would continue.
But Ajax were paying no attention us; this was a side that eased past the group stage with maximum swagger and minimum fuss. A side that could easily have beaten Bayern Munich in both their meetings in the group stage earlier this season. The foundations had been set since that wonderful run to the Europa League final in 2017, which featured the bulk of this current team, and fruits are being reaped.
Their mix of experience and youth means Erik Ten Hag’s side are, unlike many young teams, are more progressive and zestful than naïve and green. Mixing practised heads like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Daley Blind, Lasse Schone and the wonderful Dusan Tadic – who’s been involved in more goals in the Champions League than anyone else this season – with the likes of Matthias De Ligt, Sven van de Beek, Kasper Dolberg and the Frenkie de Jong – who’s set to join Barcelona at the end of the season – has reaped brilliant dividends.
But a look at De Jong embodies the potential and rather inevitable problem. De Jong will be a Barcelona player from next season, and it won’t be a shock if others follow suit. Like Monaco in 2016/17, Ajax’s impressive campaign will draw the attention of the sharks to their players, and this promising squad is likely to be decimated before it peaks. But unlike Monaco, Ajax have been here before, this is basically their M.O; watching their developed/developing players get picked off while they keep grooming more players.
Either way, they have this story at the Bernabeu with them. The tale of how the unfancied team – whose entire squad is supposedly Gareth Bale’s annual wage – came to the home of the champions, winners for the past three years, and defied everything. Ajax legend Johan Cruyff was said ‘I’ve never seen a bag of money score goals’, in reference to richer squads. But if the late Dutch skipper was watching this, wherever he is, he might have just a bag of flair make history.