No-one expected to Ajax to get this far. No-one planned for this club to conquer Europe again.
Winning back the Eredivise was their priority this season. The title they had not won since 2014, back when Frank de Boer was coach and the best players were Siem de Jong and Davy Klaassen. When they broke their wage structure last summer to sign Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind, it was to win the Dutch title back.
All Ajax wanted in the Champions League was to still be in it after Christmas. To reach the last-16 for the first time since 2006, a completely different era for the club.
Especially given that their Champions League campaign started in the second qualifying round against Sturm Graz. The first game of this campaign was on 25 July 2018 – 10 days after the World Cup final – and they had to beat Standard Liege and Dynamo Kiev before they could even reach the group stage.
No-one would have dreamed last summer that they would still be here on 8 May, about to play their 18th match in the competition, hoping to set up a 19th in Madrid on 1 June. Not even the men whose arrivals have helped to get Ajax here.
Not Blind, who said at his press conference at the Johan Cruyff Arena that “no-one would have predicted it would have turned out like this”, when asked about this run to the semi-finals. Not Tadic, who admitted in Tottenham last week that “nobody thought we would reach the semi-finals of the Champions League”.
Even Erik Ten Hag, the Ajax head coach, could not have foreseen this, but he did not want to dwell on it too much at his press conference. “I don’t live in the past, I live in the now, and that is important,” he said. “The only thing we focus on is tomorrow’s match. But you cannot expect at the start of the season to be sitting here in the semi-finals of the Champions League, that is true.”
And that is what makes Ajax’s achievement so great. If they get through tomorrow night then they would be the first team in the modern history of the Champions League to reach a final having started the competition so early: winning three knock-out rounds before even starting the group stage. Reach the final and this Ajax team will be immortal, regardless of who ends up lifting the cup at the Metropolitano three-and-a-half weeks from now.
Ten Hag knows how big this game is, and why he does not need to inject his players with any extra motivation for it. “Everyone knows what it is about,” he said. “It is the most important match for Ajax in this arena. We don’t need any external motivation.”
But there is an extra pressure on Ajax going into tomorrow night, and it is more than just the pressure of history. It is the pressure of expectation. For so much of this campaign they have been the underdogs, not expected to do anything against teams with far more money and resources than them. And it has allowed them to freely play their expressive enjoyable game. Like when they drew twice with Bayern in the group stage. Or thumped Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabeu. Or beat Juventus 2-1 in Turin in the quarters. The dynamic has played in their favour, allowing them to be David, gleefully taking down a series of Goliaths.
But this time is different. Because Ajax are favourites. They have a 1-0 win league to take back home. They are facing a Tottenham side struggling with fatigue and injuries, who have simply not been playing as well as them in recent months, who have taken 10 points from their last 11 league games and who have only held on to fourth place in the table because Arsenal and Manchester United are even worse.
So, for the first time since Sturm Graz 10 months ago, Ajax are expected to go through. If they do not it will be a failure, and a catastrophic one given the stakes. That puts an extra mental pressure on this team. Because it is harder to win when everyone expects you to.
Matthijs De Ligt admitted this last week when discussing the prospect of Ajax’s Dutch cup final against Willem II. “We’re the favourite, so I feel the pressure to win,” De Ligt said. “That’s much less the case when you’re the underdog. So I’m a bit more nervous. With this kind of game, I’m always extra focused.” As it happens, Ajax won 4-0, prompting wild celebrations in Amsterdam as the players returned with the cup.
Ajax will need to aim for the same emphatic attacking performance tomorrow. Ten Hag said they have to put the first-leg lead out of their minds. “We have to win the match,” he said. “We will play for that, and focus on that. We will play to our own strengths and with respect for our adversary. We have self-confidence, we are fit, we are eager, we are ready, we know what we are playing for.”
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