Six Ajax danger men that could cause problems for Real Madrid
Already on may major European club's scouting list, six Ajax talents that could cause problems for Solari's men in the Champions League Round of 16.
It is almost 22 years since Tijani Babangida delicately chipped Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jose Molina in the 119th minute at Vicente Calderon, sending Louis van Gaal's Ajax into the Champions League semi-finals.
The date was March 19, 1997, and it was the last time the club won a knockout tie in Europe’s most prestigious cup competition – two months before Frenkie de Jong was born. He was eight, playing youth football in Tilburg, the last time they reached the round of 16.
Now 21, the man referred to as the next Johan Cruyff and the future of Netherlands football – comparisons that make the midfielder humbly uncomfortable – is tasked with leading a bid to dethrone the three-time defending champions.
Frenkie de Jong
Real Madrid will have the pleasure of seeing De Jong up close for the first time on Wednesday night, but certainly not the last ahead of his record €75 million move to Barcelona in June.
Revered for his hypnotic dribbling, widescreen vision, savvy passing and a football acumen well beyond his years, De Jong is the fulcrum of an Ajax side unbeaten through 12 Champions League matches this season. But, while the Camp Nou-bound technician is the headline act, he is complimented by the most talented group of players to grace the club in over a decade.
De Jong’s impending transfer is expected to be the first domino in a predicted mass exodus from the Johan Cruyff Arena later this year. Despite a worrying recent slump in the Eredivisie, going toe-to-toe with Madrid grants De Jong’s talented team-mates a chance to announce themselves to Europe's footballing public and put its elite clubs on notice.
Matthijs De Ligt
Just 19-years-old and already targeted by the likes of Liverpool, Bayern, PSG and Manchester City, Matthijs de Ligt is a composed defender and defies his young age.
"He looks like he’s been doing this for six or seven years," Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar enthuses in an exclusive interview with Goal. "Matthijs is very mature for his age: he has the physique of a 24-year-old. "He is also strong with both feet, has an extremely good range of passing, can head the ball, scores goals and is a real leader at the back already at the age of 19.
Ajax conceded 10 goals in the two games Tagliafico missed with a knee injury last month, more than they had in the entire first half of the Eredivisie season. A plug-it-and-forget-it name on the team sheet for coach Erik ten Hag, the left-back is a furiously tenacious defender despite his diminutive stature.
Tagliafico was not renowned for his attacking abilities when he left Independiente in his native Argentina last January, but the 26-year-old has flourished in Ajax's attacking system. While the defensive side of his game remains his strongest attribute, his desire to get forward offers Dusan Tadic the flexibility to roam inside and yielded three goals in five Champions League group matches. The likes of Arsenal and Atletico Madrid are reported to have taken note.
If Ajax are to unlock the Real Madrid defence, Ziyech will be the key. A wonderfully enterprising figure in midfield, the Moroccan playmaker makes Ajax tick – the type of player who can put the team on his back and completely take over a game. His exceptional vision allows him to split defences with his long-passing ability. Never afraid to take on a defender, his fierce left foot means goalkeepers must be on high alert for long-range shots.
Ziyech will be relishing the opportunity to go up against Los Blancos. Blessed with outstanding technical gifts and rarely lacking in confidence, the 25-year-old boasts a combined 12 goals and eight assists in 18 Eredivisie matches this season.
While Ziyech will be called upon to create the goals, Onana will be tasked with keeping them out. The Cameroon goalkeeper has consistently improved since arriving at De Toekomst in 2015. The 22-year-old's long frame and sharp reflexes make him an excellent shot stopper, but it’s his play on the ball that makes him so valuable. Onana excellent distribution is a key component in helping Ajax to break down their opponents’ first line of defence.
And while the magnitude of the occasion is incentive enough, Onana should have a bit of added motivation having been reared at Barcelona's academy.
Donny Van De Beek
Perhaps the most undervalued and least publicised name on this list, Van de Beek embodies Ajax’s fighting spirit. Often overlooked by those unfamiliar with his body of work, the 21-year-old boasts an unwavering desire and never lacks in intensity. His passion makes him something of a fans' favourite and he has the ability to match.
The Ajax youth product is astute in his reading of the game, displaying refreshingly direct passing and excellent movement off the ball. 'Maradonny' often embarks on powerful, probing runs to carve out scoring opportunities. Composed in tight spaces, he also has the cool head required to make his signature late runs into the box count. It is no surprise the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham and Roma are among Van de Beek's rumoured admirers.