By Bart H. Meijer
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Ajax Amsterdam made a dazzling run to the Champions League semi- finals last season, knocking out Juventus and Real Madrid along the way, but that did not earn them any extra credits for this year’s competition.
Three months after Tottenham’s dramatic 96th-minute goal crushed the Dutch side’s hopes of a first Champions League final in 23 years, Ajax find themselves one goal away from exiting Europe’s elite competition before it has properly started.
Having seen off PAOK Salonika in the preliminary round, the Dutch champions must beat APOEL Nicosia in Amsterdam on Wednesday to reach the group stage after the first leg of their playoff tie ended in a goalless draw in Cyprus.
“We are very ambitious and have to get back into the Champions League,” Ajax coach Erik ten Hag said on Tuesday.
“But we know how difficult this is, not many Dutch teams have survived the playoff rounds. We know what we have to do and I have no doubt we shall succeed.”
With half of the 32 Champions League spots reserved for Spanish, English, Italian and German sides, it has become increasingly difficult for clubs from leagues like the Dutch to make their mark in Europe.
Ajax, however, proved that smaller teams can still surprise and are eager to do so again, even though their glorious campaign ended in the predictable loss of some leading players, including youngsters Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong who joined Juventus and Barcelona.
The four-times European champions did manage to hold on to the bulk of their players, using an estimated 157 million euros (£143 million) in transfer proceeds to hike up the wages of Dusan Tadic, Hakim Ziyech, Nicolas Tagliafico and goalkeeper Andre Onana and keep them aboard.
But despite being able to field eight of the starting side who beat Juventus in Turin in April, the Dutch team have been struggling to reproduce last year’s fast attacking game, missing De Jong’s passing accuracy in midfield and the towering presence of De Ligt at the back.
That was evident last week in Nicosia, where, after a promising start, Ajax quickly faded and needed Onana to save them from defeat.
“We did not play well and the second half was simply bad”, Ten Hag said.
“But we have also played decent games in recent weeks, where we showed what we can do. Not all is bad.”
(Reporting by Bart Meijer, editing by Ed Osmond)