Ajax’s breathtaking display against Real Madrid is likely to be its undoing.
The Dutch club’s dramatic 4-1 rout of the three-time defending champions on Tuesday put it in the Champions League quarterfinals, but it also showed once again that many of the team’s current crop of players are too good to be playing in their own national league.
“It was a night when everything went right,” said 19-year-old Ajax captain Matthijs de Ligt, who has already been linked to major European clubs.
After this season ends, Ajax will likely have to go back to The Future - the name of its storied youth academy - to start rebuilding. Again.
Like the team that won the Champions League in 1995 and reached the final the next year (losing to Juventus on penalties), Ajax will inevitably sell off its best players in the next transfer window.
Ajax is one of the biggest and richest clubs in the Netherlands, but it can’t match the spending power of heavyweights like Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. Player salaries are far lower and Champions League qualification is not guaranteed.
Back in the 1990s, stars to emerge from Ajax’s academy included Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and twins Ronald and Frank de Boer. After their successes under coach Louis van Gaal, they all headed to major European clubs and left Ajax to rebuild.
The club, a four-time European champion, hasn’t won the Champions League since beating AC Milan in that 1995 final.
With the latest resurgence, however, major clubs have been hovering around Ajax for months looking to snap up its best players.
Midfielder Frenkie de Jong has already signed with Barcelona for next season in a deal that could be worth up to 86 million euros ($98 million). Plenty of teammates are sure to follow.
De Ligt helped his own cause with a commanding performance in the center of defense that was reminiscent of Real Madrid’s own leader, Sergio Ramos - the team captain who missed the match after deliberately drawing a yellow card in the first leg.
In the absence of Ramos, Ajax forward Dusan Tadic outmuscled and mesmerized Madrid’s defense as he set up two goals and scored one. The Serb’s pirouette away from Casemiro before teeing up Brazilian winger David Neres for Ajax’s second goal is sure to draw plenty of admirers.
Tadic has thrived at Ajax since his offseason transfer from Southampton, adding strength, skill and experience to the young team. Now, the team may struggle to keep him.
Another stellar performance came from midfielder Donny van de Beek. His tough tackling, quick passing and clever runs created the space that the forwards exploited.
And Hakim Zijech, a Moroccan midfielder who scored Ajax’s first goal in Madrid, is another player who likely will be looking for a bigger stage next season.
Despite already having his deal to leave Ajax, De Jong is focused on finishing his time in Amsterdam in style.
“Hopefully I can achieve great things,” De Jong told Dutch news site Nu.nl, “starting this season with Ajax.”
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