Ajax are back among Europe’s elite for the first time since 2014.
After years peering through the windows of footballs largest mansion, watching the best football clubs from across Europe feast away the sports premier club competition, Ajax are finally allowed back to the top table.
The last time we saw de Godenzonen in the Champions League proper they were handed a huge task in overcoming Barcelona and PSG in the opening group stages of the competition. No mean feat for any club it was seen as a straight shootout between Ajax and APOEL, their third opponents in Group F that year, as to who would clinch third spot and fall into the Europa League.
A group of death, maybe. A group that looked to soften in the favour of Ajax as a 74th minute trademark Lasse Schone free kick in the Amsterdam ArenA cancelled out Edinson Cavani’s opener and earned them a draw from their opening fixture.
Knowing that PSG would twice have to face Barcelona with one team potentially earning zero points from the fixtures, and that they, themselves faced a distinct possibility of collecting six points against APOEL, to add to the first they had earned against PSG, you could forgive Ajax for believing a path to the Round of 16 would clear for them.
But modern Ajax tend not to take the easy route on any journey the embark on and in their second group game, away to APOEL, de Godenzonen could only manage a 1-1 draw. On this same evening PSG would run out 3-2 winners over Barcelona in Paris leaving Ajax to face the wrath in just under a months time.
At the halfway stage of the group, having played each side once, Ajax sat on two points. Reflecting on what – after a promising start – could surely have been four after the opening two games, Ajax faced the prospect of needing points from Barcelona’s trip to Amsterdam or the daunting expedition to face PSG in the Parc des Princes.
Ajax would comfortably lose both these fixtures, 0-2 at home to Barcelona and 3-1 away in Paris thanks to an Edinson Cavani double. The straight shootout between themselves and APOEL for the available Europa League spot was on.
Ajax would take the spoils and head on into the Europa League following a 4-0 victory over APOEL but that would be the last time we’d see this famous club in Champions League action until this year.
In the years intervening then and now Ajax failed to qualify for the Champions League proper.
Finishing second in the Eredivisie last season – four points adrift of winners PSV Eindhoven – the four times UEFA Champions League winners qualified for the competition proper following a qualification period that had taken them to Austria, Belgium, and Ukraine.
Ajax made light work of Sturm Graz, Standard Liege, and Dynamo Kyiv to ensure their representatives, including CEO and club legend Edwin van der Sar, would be in Monaco this Thursday evening to witness their latest Champions League draw.
Group of death last time out, maybe. Group of, lets say, slightly less daunting opponents this time. Slightly. First out of the pot and into Group E are German powerhouse FC Bayern Munich, followed by Portuguese juggernaut SL Benfica, and lastly AEK Athens.
Ajax do boast three wins from their eight fixtures against Bayern, the same as their German counterparts, but were beaten 4-0 on their last visit to Bavaria thanks to a hat-trick fro Roy Makaay in 2004 and last picked up the spoils over Bayern back in 1995.
Back to back European Cup winners SL Benfica haven’t beaten Ajax since the first time the two giants collided back in 1969. In the four games since, the most recent being as far back as 1972, Ajax have thrice been the victors.
Their only meetings with AEK Athens came back in the group stages of the 1994-95 European Cup, with Ajax taking six points on their way to topping a group which also included Milan, and Casino Salzburg (now known as FC Red Bull Salzburg).
It feels that Ajax belong in this competition. Four time winners. Back to back winners in 1970-71, 1971-72, and 1972-73 there is no denying the pedigree of the club on the European stage. The history is there.
The history is there, but it’s the present that looks the most promising it has looked in some time. There is a buzz around the club once again. The young talent, led by academy graduate and captain Matthijs de Ligt, and including Moroccan winger Hakim Ziyech among others, spearheaded by returning hero Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, look set for big things in the coming years.
After being left out in the cold peering through the window at everyone else enjoying their feast, 1357 days after last kicking a ball in the Champions League proper, victory over Kyiv ensures the three-time European Champions dine at the top table once more.