I am filled with respect and admiration for Ajax, Real Madrid’s Champions League last 16 opponents, although the current side is a long way from the club’s glory days. A football revolution was fomented in Amsterdam in the last sixties and early seventies, one that would have a lasting influence on the game. Barcelona, via Johan Cruyff, would reap the long-term benefits of it. Ajax’s academy has for many years been a production line of exciting talent, something that to the detriment of the club is not now translating into profit on the pitch: the Dutch team has arguably been the biggest loser in the wake of the 1995 Bosman ruling, the legal and free movement between clubs and a judgment that allows players to leave their hometown sides earlier and earlier in search of bigger and more powerful employers.
The Ajax side that will host Real Madrid on Wednesday has gone through the same transformation as a lot of South American teams, being comprised of youth players and veterans. Among the latter is Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who briefly passed through the Bernabéu. At the other end of the scale is Frenkie de Jong, 21, the jewel of the Ajax academy who has already signed for Barcelona. He will inevitably be followed sooner rather than later by Matthijs de Ligt, the 19-year-old captain of Erik ten Hag’s side who already has 13 Netherlands caps and is attracting interest from all of Europe’s biggest spenders. Life is tough for Ajax, the standard-bearers for a league that quickly becomes too small for the best players the club produces. That great Ajax side that won three consecutive European Cups in the early 70s just wouldn’t be possible now.
This is the first season that Ajax have reached the knock-out stages of the Champions League since 2005-06 and Ten Hag’s side arrive in Madrid in curious form. After a sensational first half of the season, Ajax have been erratic following the winter break and have been thrashed 6-2 by their traditional rivals Feyenoord after recording a 4-4 draw against Heerenveen and lost last weekend against Heracles. It is during this period of uncertain results that Ajax play host to a Madrid side who are on upward curve and who love nothing more than a European occasion. Madrid are in such good form that Santiago Solari may even let Marcelo and Gareth Bale start in the Johan Cruyff Arena, two former undroppable players who have been prescribed a dose of bench to the benefit of Sergio Reguilón, Vinicius and the team as a whole. If they are handed the opportunity in Amsterdam, they need to remind their coach of their worth.