Ajax through to Champions League knockout phase – and that’s good news for all football fans

Few clubs are more synonymous with the European Cup than Ajax. The Dutch giants have won the continent’s premier competition four times and finished as runners-up on two further occasions. Only Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Barcelona have lifted the famous trophy more often.

The difference between those five clubs and Ajax is that the latter are no longer able to challenge for the biggest prize in club football. True, Milan have fallen some way short of their historic standards in recent years – the Rossoneri have not even qualified for the Champions League since 2013/14 – but they, like Liverpool, Madrid, Bayern and Barcelona, have at least won the tournament this century.

Champions League Glory For Ajax in 1995

Ajax’s most recent triumph came in 1995, when Louis van Gaal led a young team featuring academy graduates Frank Rijkaard, Frank de Boer, Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf – as well as Mark Overmars, Edwin van der Sar, Finidi George and Jari Litmanen – to glory. After topping a group containing Milan, Casino Salzburg (now Red Bull Salzburg) and AEK Athens, the Amsterdammers breezed past Hajduk Split (3-0 on aggregate) and Bayern Munich (5-2 on aggregate) to reach the showpiece in Vienna, where Patrick Kluivert’s late goal gave them their fourth Champions League after prior victories in 1971, 1972 and 1973.

Total Football Under Michels and Kovacs

The side who won those three tournaments in a row under Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs remains one of the greatest of all time. Johan Cruyff, Piet Kiezer, Gerrie Muhren, Johan Neeskens, Barry Hulshoff, Ruud Krol, Arie Haan, Wim Suurbier and Johnny Rep were among those who helped Total Football conquer the continent, as Ajax quickly became the most stylish club in Europe.

A combination of their success in the 1970s, ties with Cruyff, entertaining style of play and propensity to develop young players has seen the Eredivisie outfit consistently rank as one of the neutral’s favourites. The last couple of decades, though, have not been kind to Ajax, at least not on the European stage.

Penalty Pain In Rome…

Van Gaal took the defending champions to the final of the Champions League in 1996, where they lost on penalties to Juventus, before Ajax suffered elimination at the semi-final stage under Morten Olsen the following campaign. A gradual decline set in thereafter, as the economics of the modern game forced Ajax to sell their starlets at an ever-younger age. The Dutch side only took part in the competition in two of the next five years, and although they reached the quarter-finals in 2002/03 that proved to be an aberration: in the 15 subsequent seasons Ajax qualified for the knockout stage of the tournament on just a single occasion, in 2005/06.

A hopeful Campaign in 2018-19…

That is why last month’s 2-0 victory over AEK Athens was such a significant moment for the 25-time Eredivisie champions; that win moved Ajax onto 11 points in Group E, meaning that they have already reached the round of 16 regardless of the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting with Bayern Munich.

Unsurprisingly, a crop of talented youngsters have been integral to the club’s achievements in Europe this term. Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt are among the most sought-after players in the world at present, while Donny van de Beek has also impressed in recent months. The more experienced trio of Dusan Tadic, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Daley Blind have all played an important part too, as has the 25-year-old Moroccan Hakim Ziyech.

Replicating Van Gaal’s achievement of 1995 is virtually impossible in the modern era, but Ajax’s return to the knockout phase of the Champions League should please football fans all across Europe.

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