By Aristo Dotse
In a repeat of their clash of the 1996 UEFA Champions League final and 1997 semi-final, Ajax Amsterdam in particular and Juventus thrilled the world in the second leg of this season’s Champions League quarter-final clash, with the Dutch giants claiming a deserved revenge victory that confirmed their resurgence as one of Europe’s top sides.
In winning 2-1, in a remarkable comeback victory at the home of Juventus of Cristiano Ronaldo and company, Ajax didn’t only prove they are once again a force in Europe but showed that their lovely total brand of football is still in their DNA.
After losing 2-1 to Real Madrid, champions of Europe for the last three seasons, in the first leg of their round of 16 at the Amsterdam Arena – now called Johan Cruyff Arena in honour of their late legend – Ajax shocked the world in that very remarkable 4-1 destroyal of Real at the Santiago Bernabeu of all places to advance to the quarter-final for the first time in so many years.
But in spite of that more-than impressive victory, many thought their dismissal of Madrid was just a fluke, and thus not many fancied them overcoming Juventus, especially after drawing the first leg in beautiful Amsterdam.
So last Wednesday’s second leg away victory was least expected, again especially after they fell first to a Ronaldo goal. But this Ajax team is something special and you underrate them at your own risk.
The devastating second half display that swept aside the Italian champions and culminated in a deserved win for a 3-2 aggregate triumph once again reminded all about the return of Ajax Amsterdam where the fun is back at the Johann Cruyff Arena.
It has taken the four-time European champions a mighty hell of time, over 20 years, to bounce back as an elite European club. They first gave a warning of their intention to reclaim their status in European club football two seasons ago when, like this season, they produced some brilliant football in an impressive Europa League campaign that ended with an undeserved defeat in the final against Manchester United in Sweden.
Two years on, they are an even better side, playing more brilliant football and brushing all before them in reaching an unlikely semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur. With those very impressive, remarkable dismissals of Madrid and Juventus – the 2017 finalists – no one will underestimate them this time in their first semi-final appearance since 1997 when they bowed to Juventus.
It is no accident that Ajax are back to the forefront in European football. It has taken painstaking decisoons and hard work to reclaim their renowned class. This includes the return to the helm of affairs of the club of the former greats who contributed to the last great Ajax side, in the mid-1990s.
That brilliant team, coached by the great Louis van Gaal, and with such great players and future superstars such as goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, Frank Rijkaard, Michael Reiziger, Danny Blind, Frank de Boer, Ronald de Boer, Jari Litmanen, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, George Finidi, and Patrick Kluivert – who scored the only goal in their Champions League final win over AC Milan in 1995- came from nowhere to dominate Europe for three years. They went to another final the following year, losing to Juventus on penalties, before reaching a third successive semi-final in 1997, after which the team disbanded with a host of the players transferring to teams abroad.
22 years on, some of the heroes of that team have returned in control of the current set-up, with Van der Sar – the all-time great keeper – as chief executive after first joining as marketing director, and Overmars – the speedy winger – as football director.
Van der Sar is particularly happy of his return to Ajax after retiring from football. And he is not only enjoying his current role, as he confessed in a very recent interview, but also doing a great deal behind the scene to help significantly transform this Ajax team into such an exciting side to cheer about.
“Things are clicking. I am really happy with the place, the position, and the way Ajax is developing,” he told the BBC. “I am getting a lot of energy from it. It is hard work. I think you can only do this for clubs you have an affection with, and for the coming years I am happy in Amsterdam.
“This year is fantastic. We want to win the league a couple of times, and after that we will see what the world of football is going to bring me.”
Surely, with this kind of performances by this young team, which according to Van der Sar, believe in the Ajax project, some of the players will move on to clubs abroad next season. As we all know, exciting midfielder Frenkie de Jonk is already on the move next season to Barcelona who are likely to add captain and top defender Matthijs de Ligt, who scored the headed winner against Juventus. One or two more, like winger and playmaker Hakim Ziyech and Brazilian youngster David Neres, are also likely to be poached. But trust Ajax to replace them as soon as possible, if they eventually leave.
But for the mean time, the fun is back at Ajax Amsterdam and it could continue against Spurs. However, whatever happens in this clash with the English side, which came up tops against fellow English side Manchester City in a classic European tie, this Ajax team would still be remembered, at least to some extent, as the successor to the great team of Van der Sar, Overmars and company.
Credit: Soccernet newspaper