Last season vs. this season.
More Champions League heartbreak for Ajax 💔 pic.twitter.com/PmdR0xho31
— B/R Football (@brfootball) December 10, 2019
With Ajax’s exit from the Champions League after Tuesday’s disastrous 1-0 loss at home to Valencia, soccer fans in America are definitely not seeing any more of the Dutch darlings any time soon. They won’t be the only team that’s too good to be in the Europa League (WTF?, Inter Milan), but I don’t imagine that will make the early rounds of the UEL any more must-watch than usual.
Before going any further, don’t worry, Valencia fans, plenty will be written on this site about your team’s chances in the knockout rounds, just not in this particular piece.
This is admittedly knee-jerk and (fingers crossed) overly pessimistic, but right now, it’s hard to imagine Ajax making any more noise in the knockout rounds in the years to come.
But before I get to the hand-wringing about the future of this roster, and in-demand Manager Erik ten Hag, let’s try to process how we got here.
This was definitely a bummer heartbreaker for fans – *raises hand* — who became infatuated with this squad last spring. But it’s also safe to call this result a disappointment to anyone who appreciates a much-less-rich (though still far from penniless) team attacking Europe’s elite in such a fun-to-watch style.
Recalling the promise of September and October
As if what they accomplished last season wasn’t enough, they lost superstars Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona) and Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus) over the summer but still managed to look incredibly dangerous early in group play. I’m not saying the blowouts of Lille on September 17 and Valencia on October 2 had me asking, “Frenkie who?” or “Matthijs who?” But Ajax certainly looked well on their way to at least the knockout rounds again. They appeared to be the same free-wheeling, high-scoring group that took European soccer by storm six months ago. They were celebrating goals by lovingly slapping each other! What could possibly go wrong??
HAHAHAHAHA… ESSE É UM DOS MELHORES VÍDEOS QUE EU JÁ VI NA MINHA VIDA! 😂😂😂😂
— Esporte Interativo (@Esp_Interativo) September 17, 2019
Unexpected setback vs. Willem II
And they kept cruising until last Friday, when a seemingly harmless home match vs. Willem II, who are currently fourth in the Eredivise, ended in a 2-0 loss. More importantly, UCL-wise, Quincy Promes suffered an injury that ended up him sidelining him for today’s crucial match vs. Valencia. His absence, plus that of David Neres, who injured his knee in the 4-4 draw to Chelsea on November 5, were felt in the worst way against a Valencia squad that deserves a lot of credit for its stout defense in this win.
And we’re getting to that, but I’m incapable of glossing over that late meltdown at Stamford Bridge. With Ajax up 4-1 in the 55th, anything less than a victory seemed unthinkable. But there we were 40 minutes later, with 9-man Ajax “lucky,” in a way, to hold on for a 4-4 draw after both Daley Blind and Joel Veltman decided to get themselves sent off. If it weren’t for those two veterans – Blind is 29, Veltman is 27 – losing their cool, Ajax would have had 9 points going into what was always going to be an easy win over Lille, and 12 going into matchday 6. As it turned out, 12 was all they would have needed.
Stunned, and stifled, at home in Amsterdam
And they still only needed a draw on Tuesday — at home! — against a team they smoked back in October in a game that was no closer than the 3-0 final score indicated. But while Valencia deserves a lot of credit and played a big part in their struggles … what in the hell was that, Ajax??
A team that has consistently displayed some of the best chemistry and creativity in Europe, and one that has usually been adept at finishing anything resembling a chance, could muster next to nothing. Ajax finished with 17 shots, but just three on goal. And it was somehow even more painful to watch — at least if you’re completely in the bag for Ajax — than that stat would indicate.
After Ajax conceded the opener to Valencia’s Rodrigo in the 24th, they looked out of sorts the rest of the way, save for a few moments in the second half. Several disappointing moments epitomized their game-long struggles. It will be the memory of two in particular, though, that will be tough to shake for Ajax fans.
After an earlier opportunity when Donny van de Beek misplayed a chance to play in Hakim Ziyech for what would have been as high-quality of a shot as you could hope for, the duo got another crack at it in the 66th. The would-be assist from van de Beek to Ziyech set the talented Moroccan up for a ho-hum shot, at least by his standards, but he was unable to finish.
An uncertain future
This post would be a lot less wistful/emo — and wouldn’t have started with “good-byes suck” — if there was better reason to believe we’d see this same crew back again in ’20-21. They’ll probably still be a strong candidate to make the group stage, but their coach is in higher demand than ever in a year where one big job after another becomes available.
Speaking of which, Napoli sacked Carlo Ancelotti amid their controversy with President Aurelio de Laurentiis. So Arsenal, Napoli and Bayern are already in the market for coaches and it’s early December. Those almost certainly won’t be the last prominent openings that become available this season. In all likelihood, someone other than Ajax is going to be managed by ten Hag come next fall.
It was also going to be hard to keep van de Beek even if this team had qualified for the knockout rounds. He’s now issued “non-denial denials” of the mutual interest between him and Real Madrid several times. Expect him to join Los Blancos, or an EPL club in need of a creative midfielder, in January. He was probably his team’s best player today, and he’ll be another huge loss, even for an organization accustomed to seeing its brightest stars leave as they enter their prime.
Ziyech reportedly signed an extension in October through ’22, and David Neres in August renewed his deal through ’23. So the cupboard won’t be bare, but, to state the plainly obvious, it’s going to be an uphill climb trying to replicate last year’s magic.
Here’s to hoping someone else among the 16 teams in the UCL knockout rounds can fill the massive void Ajax is leaving with their early exit.