For most people, the biggest headlines coming out of Wednesday’s Champions League group play matches had to do with the tournament favorites. PSG drawing Club Brugge (no, I’m not making that up) was legitimately shocking. Liverpool and AC Milan played a thrilling, back-and-forth match at Anfield. Manchester City piled up a ridiculous six goals against RB Leizpig.
But I’d argue that nothing is more exciting in UCL group play right now than the possibility that everyone’s favorite Dutch juggernaut, Ajax, is back, baby!
Their 5-1 romp over Sporting Lisbon yesterday might have been even more impressive than that score would indicate, which is saying something. Sebastien Haller led the way yesterday with four (!!) goals, but this is no one-man team. Few teams play prettier attacking soccer than Ajax
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) September 15, 2021
The Case For Ajax (+250) to Win Group C
Any team that explodes for a win like that in this tournament, especially on the road, deserves our respect (ask, I don’t know, PSG or Manchester United, how hard it is to blow out a Champions League club). Given A) what we saw from Ajax back in ’18-19 and B) how they scored those goals yesterday, Manager Erik ten Hag’s team is a great futures bet at +250 to win Group C.
Part of that has to do with who else is in Group C. Ajax is battling Borussia Dortmund (-200 to win the group), Besiktas (+1,800) and Sporting Lisbon (+800). BVB has plenty of offensive firepower, but Ajax have to like their chances against a team that shaky defensively. And if oddsmakers are right about Besiktas being a substantially worse team than Sporting Lisbon, then Ajax could very well take all 9 possible points from the three remaining games they’ll play against Besiktas (September 28 and November 24) and Sporting Lisbon (December 7).
Who are these guys?
Though I feared when they were bounced from the UCL late in group play during the ’19-20 season that the end for that group was near, I’m thrilled to say it now looks like I was sorely mistaken.
For anyone tuning into the Champions League for the first time, Ajax – which has a rich history but lacks the financial resources of the continent’s biggest clubs – nearly reached the UCL final in ’18-19 with stars Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech taking the soccer world by storm.
The list of stars who played for this club before many fans knew them extends back a hell of a lot further than those guys, though — all the way back to Johan Cruyff, in fact! In more recent years, Ajax has been a key stop for the likes of Luis Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (under Ronald Koeman), Christian Eriksen and on and on.
Who’s still around from ’18-19?
Ajax reached Champions League group play in ’19-20 and ’20-21, but couldn’t quite get to the knockout stages either year. In fact, it took a minor miracle for them not to reach the round of 16 in ’19-20 after a strong start in group play, but I’d rather not rehash that here.
While de Jong, de Ligt and Ziyech, as well as Donny van de Beek, are now longer around, plenty of Ajax’s current players have valuable experience from the past few seasons, starting with Dusan Tadic and David Neres. Ajax’s role players with Champions League experience include 23-year-old center back Lisandro Martinez, left back Nicolás Tagliafico (29), right back Noussair Mazraoui (23) and midfielder Edson Álvarez (23), not to mention Daley Blind (31). Talented keeper Andre Onana (25) is also expected to return from a suspension for doping in November.
Obviously, it starts with Haller (27), who joined Ajax following a disappointing stint at West Ham. Prior to his move to the EPL, Haller had a massive ’18-19 campaign with Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt, where he scored 15 goals and added nine assists. As it turns out, this guy is worth registering on your roster.
But he’s not even the biggest star for Ajax, as that honor goes to midfielder Ryan Gravenberch. At 19, he is one of the most exciting young players in Europe, and he didn’t show his age at all during his minutes for the Netherlands at Euro 2020 this summer. Expect a big season from him in what could be his last in Amsterdam, as it’s a matter of time before he heads to a richer club in the EPL or La Liga.
Right winger Antony (21) is another young star for Ajax. In ’20-21, his first year with the club, he finished with nine goals and eight assists. As His talent was on display against Sporting Lisbon, as he contributed two assists. But it wasn’t just the assists. In case the highlights above don’t do it for you, Whoscored gave him an 8.6 for the afternoon. Is it just me, or does Antony have some Ziyech in his game??
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