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Ajax - The Third Coming?

A preview of the first of two very well-balanced Champions League semi-finals ....

Juventus v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg
Ajax players and coaching staff celebrate a remarkable quarter-final victory over Juventus in Turin.
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Total Football is just a memory now, but a very pleasant one. If the Dutch were it’s true proponents on the international stage in the early 70’s, then Ajax was the equivalent at club-level.

Cruyff, Neeskens, Haan, Suurbier, Krol, Keizer, names from the first Amsterdam team to conquer Europe simply roll off the tongue.

Like all football systems, Total Football’s success didn’t last long, maybe until 1976, just before Bayern Munich relinquished it’s hold on the European Cup. As ever, the tactics were only as good as the players a coach had to fit within the framework. But for about 6 glorious seasons Ajax, Bayern Munich, Holland and West Germany all possessed the complementary package.

Ajax With Cup
Ajax Total Football with the Cup in March 1973, just before they won it for a third successive time.
Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The second great, or second-best, Ajax team emerged some 20 years after the first, winning and losing a final of Europe’s top prize in the mid-90’s.

It’s taken another 23 years to produce a team capable of reaching similar heights. The fact that football has changed so much in the intervening period, Ajax’s current adventure is nothing short of a miracle. It is also richly deserved and well-merited.

Great Ajax teams, and what we are witnessing right now could be one of those, win trophies and leave their mark at the highest level. If this wonderful young side is not the real deal, then the manner in which they played football and passed the ball in their opponent’s half, not only at the Bernabeu, but also at Juventus’ Allianz Arena, belies belief. Not only that, they did it the hard way after failing to win the home leg against either opponent.

Tottenham’s campaign in the competition started slowly and gained momentum in Dortmund, before that epic quarter-final victory over Manchester City. Many pundits claimed the second-leg was the greatest game they’d ever seen. For sure it was a modern classic.

But you wonder how much that mammoth victory over a favoured Man City has taken out of Spurs? Can they rise to those heights again? Without Kane (likely to miss both SF legs with injury), they have done quite well this season, but often that’s because Son-Heung Min has stepped up. Tomorrow, the wonderfully talented Korean, perhaps their best player this season, is suspended.

Tottenham Hotspur v Huddersfield Town - Premier League
Lucas Moura. The Brazilian will be Tottenham’s main striker in the first-leg.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Harry Winks who has undergone surgery will not play again this side of summer, and they’ll be hoping Moussa Sissoko, back in training after missing three games with a groin problem, does not break down. Up front Brazilian, Lucas Moura will be trusted, with Fernando Llorente as back-up.

No-one is really sure how Tottenham will wear the favourites tag in the semi-final after being underdog against Manchester City.

I think the tie is an extremely close one to call, but lean towards the Dutch. They know it’s now or never. Football looks set to continue it’s finance-driven course, disadvantaging clubs from smaller countries, and of course it’s Europe’s worst-kept secret that this young, talented Ajax group are in demand by the cash-rich vultures from the big four leagues. Many won’t remain in Amsterdam much after Europe’s great prize has been decided on the first day of June, no matter what happens.

The Chief Executive of Ajax is former Champions League winning goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, also a star with Juventus and Manchester United, with whom he also won Champions League. He talks of the Ajax way -

“At Ajax we have a certain philosophy that is sometimes more important than winning - the development of players.

It happened in the 1970s with Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens and Johan Cruyff. In the 1980s there was Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. In the 1990s, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, Frank and Ronald de Boer and myself. In the 2000s, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder.

Now we have players like central defender Matthijs de Ligt, who has been tremendous for us. He lives about 5km away from the training ground and would always arrive cycling on his bike. A tremendous player. He is only 19 but since last year he is our captain.”

Juventus v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg
Delight for de Ligt, the 19 year-old Ajax captain, wise and mature beyond his years, celebrates victory in Turin.
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Clearly Ajax cannot develop players to win international cups year on year, or even decade upon decade. But every so often, by sticking to its philosophy, the club seems to produce players good enough to fit their framework and challenge at the highest level, just like now.

Tottenham, European Cup semi-finalists last in 1962, when they succumbed to Portugal’s great Benfica side, stand in their way of making a sixth appearance in the European showpiece final.

It’s certainly a tie that can go either way. Ajax no longer fear any opponent and won’t have it on their minds that the last time they defeated an English club over two legs was as far back as 1974, a UEFA Cup tie which was won only on away goals after two draws with .... wait for it ... Stoke City.

Tottenham must feel on the brink too. Beautiful, shiny, new stadium and never before been past the semi-finals in European Cup/Champions League. They are so close they can almost touch it, but is their epic success over City in the quarter-final destined to remain the highlight of a season that has recently promised so much more?

They probably hoped to be paired with Ajax in the semi-final draw, thus avoiding the more traditional heavyweights, but sometimes in football, as in life, you should be careful and cautious in what you wish for.