Ajax just a shooting star in the Champions League firmament

What little romance the financial juggernaut that is the Champions League hasn’t driven from the European game appeared centre stage last Wednesday night as Ajax took on Juventus in the last eight.

Once one of the game’s great names – and four times winner of the competition in its various guises – the Dutch side’s competitiveness at this late stage of the tournament raised eyebrows and spirits alike as they took the game to the Italian giants.

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Yes, its been nice to see the likes of Liverpool re-emerge on the European scene. It’s also been heartening to see Spurs develop, sensibly, into a growing force.

But backed by the mega TV money generated by the Premier League, neither is exactly the stuff of fairy tales.

Some might even view the rise of Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain as challengers to the established old order with misty eyes.

But in reality, their good luck, akin to a lottery win, quickly lost its allure as they proceeded to wave obscene amounts of cash in everyone’s faces.

But in the context of the modern game, the Ajax story has proper romantic appeal.

Put baldly, the Eredivisie is a long way off the European top table, and that reality isn’t really subject to change.

In recent seasons, PSV Eindhoven have made some minor waves, even managing to escape the Champions League group stages on occasion, but by and large, Dutch clubs, like so many others outside of Europe’s top five leagues, tend to be little more than group stage fodder.

Moreover, it’s worth considering the fact that six of the other seven sides left in the competition are amongst the top 11 richest clubs in the game.

Meanwhile, Ajax find themselves easily outstripped in terms of revenue generation by the likes of Southampton, who they bought Dusan Tadic off last summer.

That the Dutch side have managed to buck the trend this season has been a surprise, more so given this is their first appearance in the quarter finals since 2003 and only the second time they’ve reached the knockout stages since that year.

And they’ve done it the hard way. Last Wednesday night’s clash was their 15th Champions League fixture of a long season.

Having entered the competition in the second qualifying round, they had to fight through six games – seeing off Sturm Graz, Standard Liege and Dynamo Kiev – just to make the group stages.

There, they played six more ties – including noteworthy draws against Bayern Munich – before they deservedly ousted Real Madrid in the last 16.

Tuesday night will be game number 16 in Europe – and despite the excellence of their performance in the first leg, few will favour the Dutch side making the last four.

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But while Erik ten Hag’s charges would love to progress, it’s matters domestic that must and do take priority.

For while Ajax have lit up the European season, they’ve been locked in a battle with champions PSV Eindhoven in the race for the Eredivisie title.

A first league title since 2014 would obviously be welcome (and Saturday evening’s 6-2 win over Excelsior saw them edge in front), but probably more important would be return to the lucrative Champions League next season, this time in the last qualifying round – a prize only the Dutch champions can receive.

The competition, after all, represents not just a major financial boost and a bonus for players and fans alike – but crucially, a high-quality proving ground and shop window for those that must realistically be selling clubs.

It’d be great to see this Ajax side given time to develop, but the economics of the game make that a romantic notion.

Regardless of how they ultimately fare at home and abroad this season, they’re almost certain to look markedly different on the pitch next term.

It’s highly unlikely that the Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong will be the only departure in the summer – with Matthijs de Ligt, David Neres, Nicolas Tagliafico and Hakim Ziyech, to name but four, all attracting serious interest from the game’s bigger fish.

Ultimately, this Ajax side will never reach its potential, which should be cause for regret.

All the more reason so to enjoy them now and hope their fine football philosophy earns reward as the season closes.

Greater European glory will probably be beyond them, but a league and cup double in Holland would at least be a lasting reminder of what might have been.

The Author

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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