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[2885] It has been awhile Ajax, it’s been awhile

I first began supporting Ajax in the late 1990s after watching Edwin van der Sar playing for the team. I do not remember when exactly, but possibly after finding out Ajax won the 1995 European Cup.

That team was a magical one. Marc Overmars. The de Boer brothers. Nwankwo Kanu. Jari Litmanen. Clarence Seedorf. Danny Blind.

As a teenager, I kept drawing Ajax’s Dutchman logo on my belongings. Pencil case, exercise books, tabletop. I remembered every line that needed to be drawn. And when I played Championship Manager, I only played Ajax and nothing else.

It has been ups and downs with Ajax. But since the late 1990s in general, until Frank de Boer arrived to manage the team, it is not an exaggeration to say it had been a downhill journey. I have stayed true to the team for all those years, but being dismissed as a has-been second-rated team was an insult I am sure many Ajax fans had to endure.

That is not to say there were no great players during the interim. Rafael van der Vaart. Wesley Sneijder. Luis Suarez. Christian Chivu. John Heitinga. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The names go on and go. Yet, they could not quite make it super big at Ajax, and Ajax could not hold on to them. There was not enough money to go around. So they went away, doing great things at bigger clubs outside, getting paid multiple times more than what they got in Amsterdam.

But this current team, well…

I watched some ESPN clips commenting about the Ajax-Juventus fixture. All of them were dismissing Ajax with a halfhearted hand wave. “Ajax is good,” they said. “But they lack the experience,” they claimed.

And there was Cristiano Ronaldo.

This team that forced Bayern Munich to work for their one point and embarrassed Real Madrid in Santiago Bernabeu so badly, could not beat Juventus so supreme in the Serie A and so certain to win the Italian League, they believed.

And Ajax, oh well, Ajax is only at the top of the second-rated division, ahead of PSV Eindhoven by only goal difference.

Who is Ajax?

But Ajax has been in a serious rebuilding mode since the early 2010s when several of the 1990s veterans joined the management. There were infighting, but Frank de Boer rebuilt the team. He left in 2016 but he left a great foundation for Ajax to run on that they reached the final of the 2017 Europa Cup, losing to Manchester United after a great run. But well, that is second-rated competition. Who cares?

And now, in 2019 Ajax is in the semifinal after beating Juventus. Do not let anybody say it was luck. It was actually Ajax working brilliantly with confidence and experience.

And those ESPN commentators?

Eating Ronaldo’s smelly socks, no doubt.

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[2618] Ajax went above expectation

Frankly, when I found out that Ajax would be grouped with Real Madrid (again!), Manchester City and Borrusia Dortmund in the group stage of the Champions Leauge, my heart sank. Does Ajax have any chance against these giants? Borrusia Dortmund maybe but Real and City?

The first two results were grim. In the first match, Ajax was unlucky to lose to Dortmund 0-1. Given the tough matches ahead, this was a must win and Ajax wasted it. It appeared, Ajax might even miss the Europa Cup. In the next match,  Real pummeled Ajax 4 to 1. In the third match, which was held earlier today, I had expected City to roll over Ajax.

And no, instead, Ajax streamrolled over City.

I woke up for sleep for a moment after going to bed early. Weary eyes, I picked up my phone and checked the score: Nasri made it one up for City. I went back to bed, expected the worst.

At dawn, weary eyes still, forced to get up by the noisy alarm, I picked the phone again and what I read delighted me.

Not a bad way to start the day.

The unfortunate thing is that things are getting tight because Dortmund beat Real unexpectedly. While that means the qualification spots are wide open, I prefer if Real had won. While that would probably realistic sealed the first spot for Real, leaving only the second spot open, it would be easier to have the second spot wide opened than all spots opened. Reason is simple: the points difference between the second and the third ranked teams in Group D would be smaller in the only-second-spot-is-opened scenario than the scenario of all-spots-are-opened.

Right now, there is a 3-point difference between second-placed Real and third-place Ajax. If Real had won, there would have been only a 1-point difference between Dortmund and Ajax.

Anyway, while I do want to see Ajax qualify into the next round of the Champions League (it has been too long), I think the realistic expectation is to go through the Europa Cup. To do this, Ajax will have to beat City (the next match will be in Manchester, which will be tough. Fighting away from home is also tough; I probably do not mind a draw) and beat Dortmund. Do all that to maintain the third spot.

I am convinced that Ajax can beat Dortmund in Amsterdam later in November.

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[2540] Here is to the 31st Eredivisie title

This season has been an amazing one for Ajax. Ajax had to fight really hard to get where it is right now and that is number one.

Too many times, the prospect of a spot in the highly lucrative Champions League that is important to the financial health of the team was increasingly distant. AZ Alkmaar, FC Twente and PSV Eindhoven dominated the top spots while Ajax lingered below. It was frustrating.

The sign showed that the Dutch Eredivisie was no longer a division dominated by the Big Three: Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV. It has been so far several years now but this season has been the most competitive as far as I remember. AZ and Twente had sealed their reputation. Their previous years performance was not just a temporary luck. It was a permanent boost that made the two deserving of respect.

By mid-season, Ajax was fourth in the Eredivisie, 5 points behind leader AZ Alkmaar and just 2 points above Feyenoord. By the end of February, Ajax was fifth with even Heerenveen was placed above Ajax. The only saving grace was that Feyenoord squatted the sixth rung. Yet, Feyenoord beat Ajax 4-2 in January. The more painful defeat was back in November when FC Utrecht beat Ajax 6 to 4.

Things only started to turn around late in the season as the latter stages of the Champions League and the Europa Cup were underway. Ajax performance in the Champions League and later in the Europa Cup was disappointing. I personally thought Frank de Boer, despite being an Ajax legend and despite his stewardship that brought the title back to Amsterdam in the last season.

But the exit had a silver lining. It allowed the team to focus on the domestic league while others were still busy with European competitions.

It was during this time that PSV did terribly and suddenly found themselves quickly discounted from winning the crown. Ajax meanwhile scored 12 straight wins since February. That included 2 wins against PSV and Twente.

And yesterday, Ajax effectively won the Eredivisie from the 31st time. It is still not official because with two games remaining, only 6 points separate Ajax from Feyenoord. But with over 53 goals difference and Feyenoord having only 29, Ajax definitely can lose the final two games and still win the Eredivisie.

I think the biggest surprise is Feyenoord. The Rotterdammers did very poorly in the last few seasons that it was impossible to hate them. In the last season, Feyenoord finished 10th. This season they may finish second. At worst, sixth. Judging by their fixture, first against Heracles and later Heerenveen, they are unlikely to lose their grip on the second place.

Whatever happening to the Rotterdammers, I am happy. This is the first time in a very long time Ajax won the title in two consecutive years. The last time that happened was in, well, 1995. How appropriate!

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[2363] Today, Ajax, the champion!

After six painful years of waiting, losing and near misses, Ajax are finally the champions of the Netherlands.

This season was close and it is a testament of the increasingly competitive nature of the Eredivisie. No one team dominates the rest any longer. The make-up of the Eredivisie is no longer of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV. In the last couple of years, AZ Alkmaar and Twente have been disrupting the equation. This year, it were Ajax, PSV and Twente. Feyenoord meanwhile were nowhere to be seen, except some weeks ago when they embarrassed PSV.

The fact that both the top two teams met at the very end of the season made one thing true: everybody was in control of their own fate. There was no luck and no hoping some other teams would do someone a favor. In the end, there were pure initiatives.

The match was a competitive game, with both sides assaulted each other’s defense relentlessly. Both took the game seriously, knowing they had everything to lose and everything to gain. There was no rest. It felt like ice hockey. The Ajax-Twente game was the definition of competition.

Several factors made the game the way it was.

First, it was the championship decider and it is especially relevant for Twente. Twente are on the rise and the second consecutive championship for them might seal their status as the new Dutch powerhouse where AZ Alkmaar has failed.

Second, only the winner would qualify directly into the lucrative Champions’ League. Ajax, PSV and Twente need to participate in the Champions League to stay in black. Ajax’s was in red for the longest time and that trend stopped only last year after Ajax played in the Champions’ League. The sales of Suarez helped but really, it was the Champions’ League.

The Europe money was all the more important considering that Martin Jol, Ajax’s former manager, left because there was no funds for new player. Ajax’s finance frustrated him. With this win and future money from the Champions’ League, Frank de Boer can strengthen the team in time when rumors of a number of key players, namely Christian Eriksen, Gregory van der Wiel and Maarten Stekelenburg, are leaving. And Ajax of course, have to find a replacement for Luiz Suarez. Miralem Sulejmani and Mounir El Hamdaoui simply will not cut it. I like El Hamdaoui but I think Ajax need someone of greater caliber.

Third, the loser of the match could have lost everything. The top three teams were that close with each other. In the end, it did not matter because PSV failed to win their last match.

Fourth, Ajax lost last week to Twente in a KNVB Cup final. Ajax’s loss was painful because Twente made an amazing comeback to win the game three goals to two when Ajax had led by two goals to none. So this league match was chance for revenge for Ajax. And revenge is best served cold.

I wish Ajax had Suarez to celebrate with. Ajax are partly here because of him.

And I do wish all the players stay with Ajax. The biggest problem with Ajax is retaining the players. Success while sweet, as always been a curse to Ajax. Ajax’s win of the European Cup in 1995 and the subsequent participation in 1996 European final are two cases in point.

What is great is that two former players from the 1990s era led Ajax to this victory. Frank de Boer and Danny Blind have led Ajax successfully where others in the recent past have failed. The victory is also important in creating stability in Ajax.

Apart from the fact that Ajax have been changing its coach all too frequently, Johann Cruyff the Ajax legend is playing a divisive role in Ajax and is massing his influence against the what Ajax are at the moment. The win gives de Boer the capital he needs to hold Cruyff off and provides some stability in Ajax.

I honestly think Ajax need the stability that de Boer and Blind can now offer to the team.

And, if I may:

We are the champions!

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[2241] Of to mark a return, let’s do a Group of Death

After five disappointing years mingling with the unpure, Ajax finally return to top-flight soccer. Too excited Ajax are, that the Amsterdammers outrageously jumped straight into the so-called Group of Death, filled with AC Milan, Real Madrid and Auxerre. It is really hard to see a more competitive group for this season’s Champions League than the group Ajax are in.

Nothing could really describe how critical is the return of Ajax to the Champions League. Earlier in the season, manager Martin Jol who engineered the return almost left Ajax for Fulham. One of the reasons why he contemplated the move was money: Ajax had little to spare to strengthen its squad. The Champions League is big dollar championship that may solve the financial issues that Ajax face.

Apart from money is the issue of prestige. Especially after the Dutch’s good run in the latest edition of the World Cup, big rich clubs are targeting multiple Ajax players. Suarez is one. van der Wiel is two. Stekelenburg is three. Top-flight soccer is a factor that may encourage these players and others in the first team to stay a little bit longer amid opportunities to play in bigger leagues with bigger pay.

Ajax also need to attract good players for the obvious reasons. The youth is of course great but Ajax need more than just building the future. Ajax need to build the present.

Yet another reason why the return is important is the fans. One cannot begin to describe the shame of exile. Four-time European winner, down there, somewhere under the radar. “Ajax, oh, they were good.” They were good…

I am clearly delighted with the return but honestly, I do not think Ajax will advance too far this time around, especially with the like of AC Milan and Real Madrid.

Ajax have a good time. Last season was great. El Hamdouai so far has proven to be a good buy, clicking with Suarez and the rest of the team. But AC Milan and Real Madrid are not Vitesse, Groningen, Twente, PSV or even the old lady Feyenoord whom fate nowadays deserves pity.

Ajax struggled with PAOK and Dynamo Kiev during the qualification and play-off round. Based on that performance, frankly, Ajax will struggle against Auxerre. Ajax will struggle against the other two teams in the group.

Ajax played against Auxerre previously in the Champions League. I do not remember anything more than that.

I do not know if Ajax played Real Madrid in the Champions League before.

But I know that Ajax played AC Milan countless of times before. The most memorable meet-up for Ajax is, well, watch this: