Champions League: Will Ajax repeat their heroics from 1995?
With clubs like Manchester City and PSG squandering millions of dollars every season to embellish their trophy cabinet, some famed teams from the past have lost their influence. This flow of money, although not admired by the followers of the game, has become a sad truth of modern day football. Going against this flow, Leicester City won millions of hearts when they lifted the Premier League in 2016. Such odd-defying stories, be it against the power of wealth or any other factor, enchants everyone. One such tale is of Ajax's young and dauntless side from the 1994-95 season.
Not as dominant as it once was, Ajax has a rich history rivalled by very few teams in world football. Besides the numerous accolades, 33 league titles and four European Cups, they have gathered since their establishment in 1900, Ajax is renowned for its principles of playing a free-flowing, offensive brand of football, famously known as "total football", and for its youth academy which has produced several legends of the game.
Promotion of promising young players cultivated at the club's academy to the first team is a tradition at the club. Throughout history, Ajax has been the prey of other richer clubs, who dismantle the club by offering their players luscious contracts. Commanding dutch football between 1977-1985, they won six Eredivisie titles; however, the departure of key players like Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ronald Koeman saw them go through a period of decline. Five years later, in 1990, albeit by just one point, they finally managed to win the league.
In 1991, Ajax assigned Louis van Gaal as the manager with the aim to rebuild the club. A pragmatic manager, Van Gaal's recruitment was not considered an intelligent move for a club built on the foundation of "total football", but he quickly assembled a new team and led them to cup success in 1993. Having won the support of fans by delivering a silverware, he continued remodelling the team. Then came the glorious 1994-95 season.
dwin van der Sar, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert were unfamiliar faces in a young and promising Ajax side in 1994. Remarkably, half of the players in Ajax's 24-man squad for the 1994-95 season were budded at the club's celebrated academy. They started the season robustly, winning nine and drawing one of the first 10 league fixtures. The excellent form continued in the European Cup as well, where despite being in the same group as AC Milan, the reigning champions, they topped the group by winning four and drawing two games.
A comfortable win in the quarterfinals against Croatian club Hajduk Split was followed by a tricky semifinals tie against German giants Bayern Munich. Ajax managed a goalless draw away in Munich before battering the Bavarians 5-2 at home to ensure a place in the final against AC Milan.
Van Gaal's group of skilful, young yet mature footballers were growing confident with every game and were appearing indomitable. Experienced players like Rijkaard and captain Danny Blind orchestrated the team competently on the field. Domestically, in the league, Ajax did not face any loss. They were invincible and won the Eredivisie with 61 points. However, getting the better of a Milan side that included the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Marcel Dessaily and other influential players of that generation was a much more gruelling challenge.
The final was not just a match between two amazing teams. It was a clash of two different ideologies; a defensively adept side with little fluidity against a club with a tradition of playing free-flowing attacking football. Majority of the match went as expected. Ajax despite having most of the possession, could not penetrate Milan's solid defence. Milan, on the other hand, like most Italian clubs, sat back and tried making the most of counter-attacks.
With just a little more than five minutes of normal time to go, Rijkaard, a former Milan player, playing the final game of his career, employed all his wisdom to work and assisted the winning goal with an exquisite pass. Patrick Kluivert, 18 at that time, received the pass and put the ball in the back of the net. Startling, it was, to witness a group of youngsters guided by a couple of accomplished players, defeat a mighty AC Milan side who were also the finalist on previous two occasions.
After 24 years now, will the young gems of Ajax duplicate the past? They are in the quarters of the Champions League and are 1st in the league, ahead of PSV on goal difference, with six games to go. Defeating Real Madrid, winners of last three European cups, should have surely boosted their confidence. Before wealthy clubs pounce on the club's extraordinarily talented players in summer, neutrals would love to see them lift all the honours. The question is whether it's a possibility? Well, if it has happened before, why not again?