Ajax players had reason to celebrate after beating APOEL to reach the Champions League group stage. But why did they have to? (Getty)
So maybe Ajax really is back.
For long-time fans, it felt hard to trust the recent success. Because Ajax’s feast-or-famine cadence in European competition suggested that one-off success was the likelier outcome. After all, Ajax had stranded in the third qualifying round, several games short of the main Champions League tournament, in three straight seasons before last year’s miracle semifinal run.
For whatever reason, Ajax always struggled to make it through qualifiers and playoffs. And so, coming out of the ever-declining Eredivisie and its diminishing European berths, sustained European relevance still felt elusive.
But Ajax reached the group stage again by outlasting APOEL in the playoff round, winning the second leg 2-0 on Wednesday after a scoreless first leg in Cyprus. An unambitious APOEL took a hyper-defensive approach as Ajax pushed and pressed and picked at the goal it so desperately needed.
It came in the 43rd minute from Mexican national teamer Edson Alvarez, making his full debut no less. Left unmarked, Hakim Ziyech picked him out on a free kick for the open header.
After the break, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar appeared to have a second when Nico Tagliafico headed another free kick back across goal for the efficient target man to nod home off the underside of the bar. But the goal was disallowed by the Video Assistant Referee, although it was entirely unclear why.
APOEL then also had a goal disallowed in a similar scenario, albeit with an offside ruling that was clear-cut this time around. But Ajax put the game away in the 80th minute, when Dusan Tadic received Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s lovely cross-field ball and smashed his finish home.
Had a few bounces landed differently however – either in this round or the earlier tie with PAOK, which Ajax narrowly won 5-4 on aggregate – one of Europe’s best and most exciting teams from last season would have missed out on the continent’s top competition.
And that feels unfair.
In a best-practices sense, Ajax has done everything right. It figured out how to build a global brand out of a second-tier league. It also stayed true to its ideals, playing beautiful, attacking soccer with young and often home-grown players. It did good business on the transfer market, consistently buying low and selling high. It has a coherent vision and policy.
It paid off. In 2016-17, Ajax managed to push into the Europa League final, losing only to Manchester United. Last season, it came within seconds of the Champions League final, before Lucas Moura completed Tottenham Hotspur’s remarkable comeback in the final breaths of the game, making for a crushing elimination for the Amsterdammers. But in between those seasons, Ajax missed out on the main tournament of either competition, upset by Nice in the Champions League qualifiers and then Rosenborg in the Europa League playoff.
The reason for the long road Ajax has to navigate into the main tournaments, in spite of winning the Eredivisie last season, is the Netherlands’ fetid UEFA coefficient, which collapsed to 11th in Europe, below Belgium, Ukraine and Turkey, and only just above Austria. This is in spite of the fact that Dutch clubs, combined, have the fifth-most titles in both the Champions League and the Europa League. Ajax alone has four Champions League titles and one UEFA Cup trophy.
It feels unjust for Ajax’s accomplishments, whether recent or not, to result in two chances to be eliminated before the main tournament even begins. The fact that Ajax won the Dutch title saved it just one round of qualifying – last year, it had overcome three rounds of qualifying. This mechanism keeps good sides out of the Champions League on the basis of just a game or two. Strong teams are held down by a weak league, making it ever harder for clubs from smaller nations to compete in Europe and further ossifying the dominance of the five biggest leagues.
It makes you wonder if UEFA coefficient should be determined by individual clubs and their track records, rather than that of their entire nation, when teams have no control over the fate of their countrymen.
At any rate, Ajax is back in the tournament. And it’s well-positioned to make another run. Because Ajax had a savvy summer. It lost prodigies Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, its captain and defensive rock and its primary playmaker, to Juventus and FC Barcelona, respectively.
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But Ajax knew it would. It had already purchased four new central defenders in Lisandro Magallan, Lisandro Martinez, the American-born Kik Pierie and Mexico’s Alvarez – taking a kind of by-committee approach to succeeding de Ligt. By purchasing four highly touted young defenders, in addition to the ones already on the books, Ajax is playing the numbers in the hopes that one or two of them pan out. Razvan Marin was also brought in from Club Brugge to help fill in the midfield, along with a handful of academy products.
More significantly still, the club convinced Hakim Ziyech, David Neres, Dusan Tadic, Nico Tagliafico, Andre Onanna and Noussair Mazraoui to commit to staying, in spite of interest from bigger or richer clubs, by signing new contracts. Donny van de Beek appears to be staying as well, in spite of Real Madrid’s persistent flirting. Ajax managed to retain the bulk of its core, keeping them in the Netherlands when more attractive leagues beckoned.
Ajax, then, is still in this thing. Still relevant. And its revival might actually be legitimate.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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